Criminal Law

Drinking and Hosting - Liability for Parents

As parents, what do you do when you know your underage children have been drinking alcohol, like at parties, for example? It's hard to know exactly what your children are doing and with whom once they leave your house, so you may think drinking at home is the safer choice.

However, in many states, if your children and their friends drink alcohol in your home, you can be sued under the state's social host laws.

What Is a Social Host?

Generally, a social host is someone who gives alcohol to guests without asking for money in return, unlike a restaurant or a bar. The usual setting is serving alcohol at home, say, for a party, or on property under your control, such as your boat or a picnic site.

What's the Law in Your Area?

The laws vary a lot from state to state. For example, a Massachusetts law makes parents legally liable when they serve alcohol to minors or allow underage drinking in their homes. It might not be clear if that covers underage drinking without your knowledge. The kids for example, may be hiding the alcohol in a cup or soft drink bottle. Parents wonder whether they need to inspect every beverage in the house or face possible charges.

Many communities have similar laws, called "presence ordinances," (PDF) which may leave party guests or property owners open to tickets or even criminal charges for permitting underage drinking. These laws presume if there's underage drinking in your basement, for example, all party guests were drinking. So, by being at the party, teens and the homeowner face at least a ticket.

Look at the Purpose of the Laws

The laws may seem unfair at first sight, but they're not so harsh when you look at the purpose behind them: Preventing grave injury or death involving alcohol and teens. Some also argue teens or parents won't seek emergency help or "alcohol first-aid" for a friend or guest who had too much to drink and may be sick or even dying out of fear being held responsible for the guest's injury.

These laws help to protect teens and hold adults accountable.

When Can a Social Host Be Sued?

Of course, the person who's drunk and causes an accident, injury or property damage is legally responsible for it. Social host liability makes the person serving or providing the alcohol responsible for any harm done, too. 

The shifting and sharing responsibility of a host comes from the idea that someone providing alcohol owes a duty to those at the party or event, as well as to the general public, to prevent any injury or death from drinking or drinking and driving. It's up to the host to ensure that the guests are drinking responsibly.

What Are the Penalties?

In the case of accidents or injuries caused by an intoxicated teen - like when a drunk teen causes a car accident after driving home from a party - the parent who was home during the party faces a civil lawsuit or even criminal charges. Penalties can include a fine of a couple of thousand dollars and jail time, or both.

On top of that, the parent may have to pay the medical bills and other damages suffered by the teen and anyone else involved in the accident.

Some lawmakers believe social host liability is unjust and extreme, while others think the laws aren't harsh enough. Either way, public awareness of this liability needs to increase so adults and their kids know what they are getting into when there is alcohol consumed in their homes. Preventing and prohibiting underage drinking in your home, and teaching your child about alcohol use and abuse, is in many ways the best option.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I need to lock up alcohol if my teen has friends over and I'm not home?
  • How far does a social host's duty go? For example, if I offer a ride home to a party guest who refuses and has a car accident, could I be liable?
  • Does social host liability apply if teens brought alcohol and drank it at my home without my knowledge?
  • Do homeowner insurance policies cover losses from social host liability?
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