Some parents think that drinking is simply part of growing up. Other parents believe that if their teenager is going to drink alcohol, it's safer to drink at home. However, that's not the case. Under social host liability laws, parents are responsible for underage drinking in their home. Basically, a parent that serves or supplies alcohol to underage drinkers can be liable if that person is injured or injures someone else.
Parents Providing Alcohol to Underage Drinkers
The legal drinking age in every state is 21. Parents who supply alcohol in their home to underage drinkers break the law. The same is true if parents knowingly allow underage drinkers to consume alcohol in the home. Parents who furnish or allow underage drinking to occur are subject to civil and criminal penalties.
Parents Unaware that Underage Drinkers Are Consuming Alcohol
Parents usually won't be liable if they're unaware or had no reason to know that underage drinkers consumed alcohol in their home. In Massachusetts, an 18-year-old supplied alcohol to her younger sister and friends. The parents were asleep at the time and unaware that the teenagers were drinking. Although a 14-year-old guest ended up in an alcohol-induced coma, the parents weren't liable.
Parents Aren't Home When Alcohol is Consumed by Underage Drinkers
Parents who aren't home can still be liable if minors drink alcohol in their home. Liability depends on whether the parents should've known that underage drinking would occur in their home.
For instance, New Jersey parents went on vacation and left their three teenagers in the care of a 20-year-old live-in nanny. The teenagers had a party in which one of the underage drinkers ended up in a car accident. The parents could be held liable because their teenagers were not left with proper supervision and they should've known that a drinking party was likely in their absence.
On the other hand, a Massachusetts mother permitted her underage daughter to host a party while the mother wasn't home. The mother wasn't liable for injuries caused by one of the underage drinkers because the mother never kept alcohol at the home, didn't see anybody drinking alcohol before she left and there wasn't any alcohol in the home at the time she left. Basically, there was no way that the mother should've known that underage drinking would occur after she left.
Civil and Criminal Liability
If parents supply alcohol to someone under the age of 21, they're subject to criminal prosecution. In a number of states, parents can be criminally charged for hosting a party where underage drinking occurred. Civil or criminal liability imposed on parents is in addition to any liability imposed on the underage drinker.
In Pennsylvania, a parent received a prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter after several teenagers died in a drunk-driving accident following a party hosted by the parent. Although the parent didn't supply the alcohol, the parent knowingly allowed the teenagers to drink alcohol at the party.
Along with criminal charges, parents can be civilly liable, meaning that damages can be awarded in a civil lawsuit, if they knowingly allow someone under 21 to drink alcohol in their home and that person gets sick, dies or injures someone else. Social host laws vary from state to state but parents can be financially responsible for such things as:
- Medical bills
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering
Although parents may have good intentions in allowing their underage child to have a party at home, horrible consequences may result from that bad decision. Underage drinking creates a risk of injury or death. These lasting consequences can ruin many lives.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do social host laws only apply to my home or does it apply to my boat? Cottage? Hotel room?
- Can I serve alcohol to my teenage kids without being liable?
- If an underage drinker gets hurt at my home, will my homeowner's insurance protect me? Does it matter what steps I've taken to secure the alcohol I keep in my home?
- Am I liable as a parent if underage drinking occurs at my home but nobody gets hurt?