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McGuiggan v. New England Telephone & Telegraph

398 Mass. 152, 496 NE 2d 141 (1986)

Peabody, Massachusetts

Daniel S. McGuiggan (deceased passenger)

Daniel E. & Ruth J. McGuiggan (social hosts)

James J. Magee (guest/driver)

McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co. is the seminal case in Massachusetts on social host liability arising out of the provision of alcohol to a guest. In 1978 the McGuiggans held a high school graduation party for their 18 year old son Daniel. At that time the legal drinking age was 18. Mr. McGuiggan testified that he may have given 18 year old James Magee one drink when he arrived, but did not see him drinking after that and did not know how many drinks Magee had consumed. The McGuiggans and other guests testified that at all times Magee acted normally. Magee admitted that he had had 4 or 5 rum cokes that evening and that he was "pretty sure" that he later pleaded guilty to a charge of operating under the influence.

Magee and three friends, including Daniel, left the party. While riding in a vehicle driven by Magee, Daniel became sick to his stomach and leaned out the window, striking his head on a cement post owned by the telephone company. Daniel died at a hospital four hours later.

The McGuiggans sued New England Telephone & Telegraph Co., the owners of the post. The telephone company filed a third-party complaint against the McGuiggans, claiming that they were liable as social hosts of the intoxicated driver. The lower court entered a judgment for the parents. On appeal the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, holding that the parents did not have actual or reasonable knowledge that the driver was intoxicated.

The Court noted that the telephone company based its claim against the McGuiggans on common law principles and did not rely on a statutory violation. The question before the Court was whether a social host violated a duty to an injured third person by serving an alcoholic beverage to a guest whose negligent operation of a motor vehicle, while adversely affected by alcohol, caused injury to the third person.

The Court acknowledged a trend toward imposing liability on a social host in response to society's concern about the problems of drunken driving. It also noted that the problems and implications of imposing liability are extensive, explaining why more cases impose liability for serving a minor than for serving an adult.

It is easier to find a violation of a standard of reasonableness when the intoxicated guest is underage, a person to whom, generally in this country, it is thought to be wrong to furnish an alcoholic drink. McGuiggan at 161.

Although holding that the facts of the case did not present a case for social host liability, the Court announced that in an appropriate case, it would

recognize a social host's liability to a person injured by an intoxicated guest.s negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person's injury. In deciding whether the social host exercised ordinary prudence in such circumstances, a relevant consideration will be whether the social host knew or reasonably should have known that the intoxicated guest might presently operate a motor vehicle. McGuiggan at 162.