Two groups can be held liable for breaking laws and rules concerning alcohol. The first is social host liability, which applies to lawsuits against non-professionals who serve liquor to intoxicated guests, and civil and criminal liability for serving alcohol to a minor. The second group is professionals and their employers (bars and restaurants). They can be held liable for several different actions.
“Minor” usually refers to people under the age of 18. Note that in this area of the law, “minor” means someone younger than 21.
What Is Social Host Liability?
“Social host liability” is a legal concept that allows a host of a party or other gathering to be held liable in certain situations where a guest becomes intoxicated and ends up causing an injury to a third party. Recently, there has been an increasing trend for states to adopt regulations that impose liability on social hosts for the acts of their guests. This liability is undoubtedly associated with drunk driving accidents where a host served a guest too much alcohol and allowed that guest to drive despite being obviously intoxicated.
Social host liability is similar to dram shop law (discussed below). The difference is that a dram shop law imposes liability only on sellers of alcoholic beverages (like bars, liquor stores, and restaurants) who sell to intoxicated people, whereas social host liability can be applied to anyone who provides alcoholic beverages to visitors if that guest goes on to injure someone while intoxicated. Most states have dram shop laws, but not all have social host liability laws.
Who Can Be Held Liable Under Social Host Liability Laws?
Social host liability applies to anyone who acts as a host and serves alcohol as one of their hosting duties. The following are the most common groups of social hosts:
- Employers who facilitate drinking (office parties and work social events)
- Bar and restaurant owners
- True social hosts: homeowners, renters of property, or anyone else who provides alcohol to a guest who gets drunk and goes on to injure someone.
Who Can Sue Under a Social Host Liability Law?
Not all states have social host liability laws, so if you are unaware of whether a host in your state could be held responsible for an injury, you would want to check with a local lawyer to find out whether your state has this kind of law on the books.
There are two types of social host liability cases, first-party and third-party cases:
- A “first party” social host liability case exists when the injured plaintiff is the very person who was given the alcohol. Most states do not allow first-party social host liability cases unless the plaintiff is a minor.
- A “third party” social host liability case exists when the injured person is someone other than the drunk person. So, if the intoxicated guest got drunk at your gathering, they would potentially be able to file a lawsuit against you.
Proving Liability in a Social Host Liability Case
Social host liability cases can be based on negligence, recklessness, or intentional conduct. Recklessness is a much more serious offense. Negligence simply means that someone should have failed to do something. Recklessness is when someone deliberately engages in dangerous behavior, fully knowing that it is dangerous and may injury someone or damage property. There is a willful disregard for people and property and a willingness to take on that risky behavior.
In some cases, recklessness is called “gross negligence.” In all cases, the criteria for negligence must be met; however, there is an extra level of dangerous or egregious behavior by the defendant accompanying that breach of duty. Some examples could be driving while intoxicated, speeding excessively, medical professionals performing surgical procedures without the qualifications to do so, or a complete lack of safety in a store or building without warning signs posted. In general, negligence means acting carelessly, unsafely, or unreasonably when an injury to a person or object is foreseeable.
It can also be based on recklessness or intentional conduct. Negligence requires the plaintiff to prove that:
- The host owed a duty to the plaintiff (normally, the duty not to put the victim at risk by serving alcohol to someone drunk or under 21)
- That the host breach the duty
- That the host’s actions were the factual cause of the injury or damage
- That the host’s actions were the proximate cause of the injury or damage
- Injury or damage
Recklessness is a much more serious offense. Negligence simply means that someone should have failed to do something. Recklessness is when a person is aware of and consciously ignores an unjustifiable risk that something unsafe will happen.
In some cases, recklessness is called “gross negligence.” In all cases, the criteria for negligence must be met, plus there must be an extra level of dangerous or egregious behavior by the defendant. Examples could be speeding excessively, or a lack of safety precautions at a workplace where there is a danger of injury and notice is not posted.
An example of recklessness in a social host liability lawsuit would be when a host offers a guest another drink, knowing that the guest has already had quite a few, is acting tipsy, and will be driving soon. In that situation, the host knew or should have known that giving the guest another drink was likely unreasonably safe, but they gave the guest another drink anyway.
Note that it’s not required that the social host know that the guest is drunk, just aware that it’s a likely possibility based on the facts.
In some states, social host liability claims can only be brought if the host acted intentionally, with knowledge of the situation. For example, the social host liability law might require that the host know that their guest is under the legal drinking age. Further, social host liability law might only hold the host liable if the host knew (not “knew or should have known,” but actually knew) that the guest was intoxicated.
Social Host Criminal Liability
All states make it a crime to supply a person younger than 21, even when no money is involved. Some states provide an exception for the parents or legal guardians of the offender.
Most states punish the sale or furnishing of alcohol to minors as a misdemeanor. Felony penalties might apply if a defendant is a repeat offender, acted recklessly, or acted intentionally, or if the minor was seriously injured or killed as a result of the illegal supplying or selling of alcohol.
Liability for Professional Servers of Liquor (Bartenders, Bar, and Restaurants)
It is illegal for a bar or restaurant to violate the following laws:
- Allowing people under 21 to be bartenders. However, in some states, minors 18 through 20 can serve alcoholic drinks in food service areas of restaurants, but they may not bartend. In many states, 16-year-olds can work as barbacks or bus persons.
- Some states have additional laws concerning who can bartend. For example, in Florida, the following persons may not serve drinks:
- People convicted of any beverage law infraction in the past five years.
- Anyone convicted of prostitution or pandering in the past five years.
- A person convicted of a felony in the last five years.
- Violating alcohol sales hours: Each state sets its own alcohol sales hours. For example, in California, alcoholic beverages may be sold and consumed on premises of licensed areas between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. Thus, all drinks must be finished by 2 a.m.
- Serving minors: All bartending laws are important, and bars, restaurants, and bartenders need to obey them, but perhaps the most important are those regarding the sale of alcohol to minors. If local authorities discover that a company or bartender sells alcohol to minors, they will be hit with a serious fine.
- Drunk patrons: “Dram shop” laws. One of the most expensive mistakes a bar or bartender can make is to serve more alcohol to a person who is intoxicated. The laws that prohibit this are called “dram shop” laws. These allow third-party victims of drunk driving accidents to file civil lawsuits against the bar and the bartender. A person is “intoxicated” if a normal person can tell they are drunk based on their appearance, speech, smell, and other indicators.
- Selected brand name If a customer specifies that they want a specific brand of alcoholic beverage, the bartender cannot secretly give them something different. In many states, this constitutes a misdemeanor. It’s also against the law to serve a nonalcoholic drink to anyone thinking they’re getting alcohol. The names on the bottle labels must match the contents of the bottle.
- In some states, it is illegal for a bartender to drink any alcohol while working. This includes any drinks bought for them by bar patrons. However, other states leave the bar management’s decision on whether to permit bartenders to drink on the job.
Seeking Legal Help
If you are unsure about the alcohol service rules of your state, you should consult a business attorney or a criminal law lawyer to ensure you and your bar comply with local and state laws to avoid fines and successful lawsuits against you. If you are being charged with selling alcohol to a minor, find a local lawyer well-versed in this area.