Criminal Law

Parents' Responsibility for Underage Drinking

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Furnishing liquor to a child under the age of 21 in a public setting is against the law everywhere, with few exceptions. But the rules on civil liability when that child causes property damage or personal injuries are not so clear.

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Updated April 14, 2016

Parents can face serious consequences as a result of their minor children’s drinking. Furnishing liquor in a public place (with few exceptions) is a criminal offense everywhere. And in certain situations, parents can be held responsible when an inebriated child causes property damage or personal injuries. This article gives you the basics on parental liability for underage drinking.

Furnishing Alcohol: Minor in Possession Laws

Congress has seen to it that parents in every state refrain from publically furnishing alcohol to those under 21 years of age: The requirement is part of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (23 U.S.C.A. § 158), and the National Highway Act, which doles out federal money to the states for highway construction, tied receipt of funds to adoption of the rule. All states accept the money, and hence have adopted the law. States have fashioned their own versions of underage drinking laws, some of which are more restrictive. (For more information on MIP laws and state-by-state articles, see Minor in Possession of Alcohol.)

Note that the federal rule pertains to public drinking and possession, and even then, allows for possession or use:

  • for an established religious purpose, as long as the minor is accompanied by parent, legal guardian over the age of 21, or spouse
  • for medical purposes, as long as a licensed physician, dentist, nurse, hospital, medical institution, or pharmacist administers the alcohol
  • in private clubs or establishments, or
  • during lawful employment by a licensed manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer.

Parents or others who furnish alcohol to minors in violation of their state’s MIP laws face the possibility of criminal charges, most often a misdemeanor (which generally carries the possibility of a fine and incarceration in a local jail for up to a year).

Parents’ Liability for Property Damage or Personal Injuries

In our legal tradition, social hosts (including parents) were not held liable for the damage done by inebriated adult guests who subsequently negligently caused property damage or personal injuries. The theory was that the cause of the damage was the drinker, not the furnisher. But courts have not uniformly applied this approach when it comes to minors. Legislators have stepped in with dram shop laws that do impose civil liability on furnishers of alcohol when the adult recipient negligently causes damage.

In this area of the law, state laws and courts’ interpretations of them vary widely; it is impossible to give a black-and-white rule that parents can apply to any situation. Sometimes, the result (liable or not) will turn on a particular fact that, if absent, would result in a different conclusion. We can, however, look at the factors may make a difference.

Violation of the state’s MIP law

As you have seen, all states forbid public possession and consumption of alcohol by those under 21 years old, and in some states, parents who violate the law are automatically considered negligent parents. This automatic finding (called “negligence per se”) is a gift to the lawyer who represents the person injured as a result of the minor’s drinking and accidental act, for it imposes liability on that parent. Not all states have interpreted their MIP laws so expansively, however.

Parents’ knowledge and involvement

In some situations, parents who had no idea that their child would drink are not held responsible for the consequences. But those who knew or should have known that the child would imbibe may face a different outcome. For example, a parent who leaves liquor readily accessible to a minor whom the parent knows will drink it and drive will have a hard time escaping liability for any ensuing accidents.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • In our state, will a parent’s violation of our MIP law make it easier for someone injured as a result of the child’s act to recover in a civil lawsuit?
  • How does a lawyer show that I should have known that my minor child would drink and drive?
  • Will my insurance cover me if I'm found liable for damages caused by my minor child, who had been drinking?

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