A Social Host's Liability for Serving Alcohol

How effective are common-sense steps (like not serving alcohol to minors and cutting off people who’ve obviously had too much, and taking their keys) in protecting against lawsuits?

Michael W. Flynn
October 27, 2008


First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.

Today’s topic is a social host’s liability for serving alcohol. Michael wrote:

I belong to a social club that occasionally hosts events at members’ houses. A question has risen over serving alcohol. If person A drinks too much and gets in an accident by hitting person B, who will be held liable? The organization, or the person at whose house the event took place? Can person A sue? How effective are common-sense steps (like not serving alcohol to minors and cutting off people who’ve obviously had too much, and taking their keys) in protecting against lawsuits? How likely are we to be sued over this?

Thanks Michael. The short answer is that, in most states, neither the club nor the individual host can be liable for serving alcohol to adults, but might be liable for serving to minors. The quick and dirty tip is simply never serve alcohol to minors, and do not encourage drunk adults to drink more.

Under the old common law, a furnisher of alcohol could not be held liable for the injury or death of a person who consumed the alcoholic beverages. The theory behind the common-law rule was that the consumption of the liquor, rather than the furnishing of it, caused the injuries.

In modern times, states have enacted “dram shop statutes” that changed this rule. Under these statutes, a person or company that is in the business of selling alcohol can be held liable for injuries caused by the intoxicated patron—adults or minors. This is one reason that bartenders will stop serving customers who are visibly drunk. But, these statutes do not generally apply to social hosts who serve alcohol out of kindness or hospitality. But, at least one court has concluded that a social host can be liable if he recklessly encourages a guest to continue when it is obvious that the guest was drunk.

With regard to Michael’s question, the drunk guest would not have any recourse against the social club. The one exception to this might be a situation where the social club hired a bartender and charged for each drink. In that situation, the social club is acting like a bar, and a bar has much higher duties of care toward the patrons it serves. The innocent third-party victim can definitely sue the drunk guest because the drunk guest negligently drove while intoxicated. It seems that accident victim would only be able to sue the host if the host had actively encouraged the drunk guest to drink when he or she was already visibly drunk. The victim would not likely be able to sue the club itself unless the club maintained a policy of encouraging excessive drinking, or if the club had reason to know that a specific host actively encouraged visibly drunk people to drink more.

Michael’s instinct is correct that common-sense steps are a good idea to protect yourself. Any steps that a host takes to ensure a safe party will help limit the host’s liability later. For example, cutting off a drunk guest will be strong evidence that the host was not recklessly encouraging the drunk guest to drink more. Taking the drunk guest’s keys away will ensure that the guest does not stumble away from the party and drive home. However, these steps do not seem to be a legal necessity, but rather a generally good idea. These steps are also, in my non-legal opinion, just good manners. Please write to Mr. Manners if you have questions about the polite way to pull drunken friends aside and discuss getting them home safely.

The rules are different with regard to serving minors. Several states will impose liability on a social host who serves minors. For example, in New Jersey and Texas, courts held that a social host was responsible for the injuries suffered by intoxicated minors after they left the party under the theory that the host breached a duty not to serve alcohol to the minor. By contrast, other states do not impose liability on the host for serving minor guests. Courts in Illinois, Georgia, and Washington have held that the host is not liable for injuries sustained by minors whom they served. The courts offered several reasons for insulating the host from liability such as the fact that the host does not have the training in identifying intoxicated drinkers that bartenders do, and because social hosts cannot insure themselves the same way that bars can.

States are split over the issue of whether a host can be civilly liable where the host breaks a criminal law. For example, a court in Iowa held that a host was civilly liable because it was a crime to serve alcohol to minors, but a court in Alaska decided that the host was not civilly liable for injuries suffered by a minor guest even though it was a crime to serve him.

[[AdMiddle]This is an area of law that varies greatly from state to state and can depend heavily on the specific circumstances of the party. If your social club is concerned, I would recommend discussing these issues with an attorney from your state and getting specific tips on limiting liability.

Thank you for listening to Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. Be sure to check out all the excellent Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts at QuickAndDirtyTips.com.

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