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Legal Issues

Criminal & Civil Liability

Injury to a person as a result of underage drinking may lead to criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit. The person prosecuted and sued could be you.

There are two types of liability that could apply in regards to the Social Host Law: criminal liability and civil liability. These two forms of liability are related, but are also quite different. Criminal liability involves a statutory prohibition that is imposed by the State (your local District Attorney) through means of criminal proceedings. Civil liability involves a motion by a private party (the injured or estate of the deceased) seeking monetary compensation for injuries suffered due to, in this case, underage drinking on a social host's property or premises he/she controls.

State and federal laws define criminal offenses and specify the penalties for violating them. The penalties can be imprisonment, community service, fines and/or other measures. Many states have enacted social host laws. Although the definition of the prohibited conduct and the penalties imposed for engaging in it vary considerably from state to state, violation of a social host law is a crime. Other crimes with which a social host may be charged include:

In most states the district attorney decides whether to institute and pursue a criminal action in a court of law. Civil actions address private rights. An aggrieved person (plaintiff) may seek to recover monetary damages as compensation for injuries caused by another (defendant). A person injured as a result of underage drinking may attempt to hold a social host responsible for his injuries. The injured person may claim that the negligence of the host caused his injuries. In states with a social host law, violation of the law may be sufficient on its face to establish negligence and civil responsibility.

Example: A proud father who is hosting a graduation party at his home provides a keg of beer for his guests and notices that one of his son's 18 year old classmates is drinking from the keg. The classmate had planned to stay overnight, but remembered that he had to be at work the next day and decided to drive home. On his way home, the classmate lost control of his car and struck a pedestrian walking on the shoulder of the road. The pedestrian died instantly. The state has a social host law that prohibits the furnishing of alcohol to anyone under the age of 21 and defines "furnishing" as "allowing." The state could prosecute the father, a social host, under the Social Host Law, and the father could face imprisonment and/or a fine. In addition, the estate of the deceased pedestrian could file a civil action against the father, seeking millions of dollars in monetary damages to compensate for the death of the pedestrian.

Joint and Several Liability

Some states apply the rule of Joint and Several Liability, sometimes called the "deep pocket rule." This rule makes each and every defendant in a tort lawsuit liable for the entire amount of the plaintiff's damages regardless of the defendants' relative degrees of fault or responsibility. For example, if a jury were to determine that Defendant A was 99% at fault and Defendant B was 1% at fault, a plaintiff could collect his entire judgment from Defendant B.

Civil actions involving catastrophic injury or death often result in large judgments. A jury in Massachusetts recently assessed more than $8 million in damages against William White, the intoxicated underage driver of an automobile, and the liquor store that sold the beer that the driver consumed.

Think about it

In Massachusetts, a state that still applies the doctrine of Joint and Several Liability, both William White and Gateway Country Store are both 100% responsible for the $8.7 million judgment, even though a jury determined that William White was 60% negligent and Gateway was only 40% negligent. However, since William White was just 20 years old and sentenced to jail following a conviction of vehicular homicide, he is unlikely to be able to satisfy the judgment.

Applying the principle of joint and several liability, the plaintiffs are pursuing Gateway, the deeper pocket, for their full recovery.

Although Gateway was not a social host, the same principle applies to social hosts. In almost all cases involving underage drinking, the host, likely to be a homeowner, will have more assets than an underage defendant. A judgment could cost the host(s) their house, investments, business — everything.

Bankruptcy Code

Because of the efforts of MADD, the bankruptcy laws (§523(a)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code) do not allow the discharge of debts for death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle if the debtor was intoxicated. In other words, an intoxicated driver (who caused injury by to another) with a judgment against him totaling more than his/her total assests are worth must still carry the debt until paid off, under Ch. 13 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code (Wage-Earner Plan).

Social hosts may still discharge debts resulting from the actions of their guests. However, the law is subject to change at any time.