Social Host Liability MJH Version

This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.

Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (800-787-5431 or 312-324-0409). www.HealyLawFirm.com. The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.

Readers are encouraged to call or write with questions concerning personal injury law.

SOCIAL HOST RESPONSIBILITY: ADULTS BEWARE

There is a law on the books for a number of years, the consequences of which are still not fully appreciated by many adult individuals. As we move into summer, whether it is a graduation party, Fourth of July party, or just a summer barbeque, alcohol will likely be part of the celebration. With all these parties comes adult responsibility and even more so since the passage of the Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act. Currently, most states have some type of social host responsibility law. Since 2004 in Illinois, the Act imposes responsibility on a parent or any adult who serves or provides alcohol to a minor or permits the use of alcohol by a minor. The statute specifically imposes civil liability for "any person at least 18 years of age who willfully supplies alcoholic liquor or illegal drugs to a person under 18 years of age." Under the statute, the victim can recover economic damages, non-economic damages, attorney's fees, and even punitive damages.

The Act was passed by the Illinois legislature in response to two high profile cases. The first case involved a 16-year-old girl who died after she drank a quart bottle of liqueur at her friend's house. The second situation involved a hazing ritual between junior and senior high school girls from a north suburb in 2003. In both cases, parents turned a blind eye to underage drinking.

In the first case, the mother of the 16 year-old girl brought action against two brothers and their father for negligence in providing a bottle of Goldschlager to the teenager. The plaintiff's daughter lost consciousness after drinking the bottle of liqueur and died later that day. The mother argued that her daughter, a minor, could not appreciate the dangers associated with consumption of excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages.

While the mother could pursue a "voluntary undertaking" theory because the defendants undertook to help the daughter, but refused to get her medical treatment, the mother could not pursue a "social host" theory against them because there was no statute imposing that duty on them.

The second case involved the highly televised hazing ritual that was caught on videotape between the junior and senior high school girls. The video of the drunken battle between the high school girls was played on national television. Five girls were hospitalized. Thirty one students, twenty eight females and three males were suspended from school, some later expelled due to the off campus incident. The media focused on how such a large number of minors were able to obtain alcohol for the event. Two mothers of students were later charged for providing alcohol to the teens.

Under the current law, if a parent or homeowner over the age of 18 serves alcohol to anyone at their home under the age of 18 and causes the impairment of that person, they will be liable for injuries to persons or property caused by that impairment. The statute covers not only injuries to the teen but also to any third party victims of the intoxication. So if the intoxicated teenager leaves the home and gets into an accident, the homeowner providing the alcohol may be responsible not only for the injuries suffered by the teen but also the injuries suffered by any other person involved in the accident.

NO CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE OF THE MINOR

Looking to place responsibility on the responsible adults, the legislators specifically eliminated any theory of contributory negligence of the minor from the statute. The Act states, "Neither contributory negligence nor contributory willful and wanton conduct shall apply to any injured party claiming damages under this Act." So, it doesn't matter how carelessly the minor may be acting, the homeowner could still be found liable for their actions.

LIABILITY IN NON-RESIDENTIAL SETTINGS

The statute makes a distinction between residential and non-residential settings. In a residential setting, an adult will be held liable for the actions of the impaired minor if any person over the age of 18 "willfully supplies" alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs. In non-residential settings (not specifically defined in the statute), the Act provides that the adult may be held liable for simply "permitting" consumption of alcohol by a minor on their non-residential premises. So in a non-residential setting an adult doesn't have to buy or supply the minors with alcohol, but merely allow it to be consumed to be found liable.
The Act is another example of the no nonsense approach to teen drinking. Everyone should be aware of it. Not only should you make every effort to comply with the Act, but, also check to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage in case an issue like this arises.

By: Jack Cannon
Matt Gannon