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Social Host Liability

According to a study conducted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in 2016 there were 119 drunk driving deaths in Massachusetts, which comprised 31 percent of all traffic fatalities in the state. Drunk driving is often thought of as a criminal violation; but alcohol related accidents also open the door to civil liability, and not just for the drunk driver.

commerce-acts-books-477966-mIn Massachusetts, the person(s) who served the alcohol to the drunk driver may be held liable to the injured third party under the legal theory known as “social host liability”.  The common law theory of social host liability was first recognized by Massachusetts courts in McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986). In McGuiggan, the defendants hosted a party at their home and provided alcohol to their guests. One of the guests became intoxicated and left with the defendants’ son to drive three other guests home. Due to the drunk guest’s negligent driving, the defendants’ son was injured and died. The court in McGuiggan found that the defendants were not liable for the death because there was no evidence that they knew the driver was intoxicated at any time while he was at their home.

However, the court stated it would “recognize a social host’s liability to a person injured by an intoxicated guest’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person’s injury.” The court noted that such an inquiry requires consideration of “whether the social host unreasonably created a risk of injury to a person who the social host should reasonably have foreseen might be injured as a result of the guest’s intoxication.”

The McGuiggan court’s holding upended the traditional view that the intoxicated person’s voluntary consumption alone is the “proximate” cause of a third party’s injury.

In the cases analyzing social host liability since McGuiggan, Massachusetts courts have been reluctant to expand the scope of duty on social hosts. For example, in Ulwick v. DeChristopher, 411 Mass. 401 (1991), the court held that where a social host lacked control over the supply of liquor to guests, the common law did not provide a remedy to third parties injured by those guests. In other words, in order to be found liable under the social host liability theory, a social host must have actually served the alcohol or made it available.

Social host liability focuses on the question of the extent of the host’s “control” of the alcohol supply. In refusing to extend liability to hosts in situations where guests furnish their own alcohol the courts recognized the practical difficulties of imposing a duty on a host to control the conduct of guests who drink their own liquor.

The limited scope of social host liability was reaffirmed in the recent Superior Court case, Destefano v. Endicott College, Civil No. 1777CV00152 (Mass. Super. Ct. Dec. 18. 2017). The plaintiff in Destefano, was a student at Endicott College. In 2014, the plaintiff became intoxicated at a “dorm party” on campus and then randomly attacked three other Endicott students, severely injuring two of them. The plaintiff pled guilty to criminal charges and subsequently filed a civil complaint against Endicott College, alleging that the college was liable for allowing him to become intoxicated under the theories of social host liability and negligent supervision. The court held that the college could not be found liable under the social host liability theory because the college did not serve or supply the alcohol the defendant consumed. The court further noted that “[n]o Massachusetts court has ever applied social host liability theory to a college or university” and “[t]o impose such a duty on a college or university that may have thousands of students as well as multiple buildings and units to house such students, would be impractical and unreasonable.”

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