In some states, if newlyweds serve alcohol at their wedding or reception, they may be liable for injury and property damage caused by their drunken guests. When any person serves alcohol to a person who is obviously drunk, the server is considered to have contributed to any harm the person laters causes. Liability extends from the server to the party host and the business that hired the server, if one is involved.
In some states, under “social host liability” laws, a person who hosts a social event, including a wedding, may be legally liable if they provide alcohol to a guest who drinks to the point of intoxication and later causes an accident.
Everyone wants to enjoy a wedding and that generally entails consumption of alcohol. However, data reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), show that 10,142 people died in crashes whose cause was related to alcohol consumption in 2019.
These crashes involved at least one driver who had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher. This level of BAC meets the legal definition of impaired driving in most states. According to NHTSA, deaths from alcohol-impaired crashes accounted for 28 percent of all crash deaths in 2019.
The law in some states makes social hosting a criminal misdemeanor and imposes criminal punishment on social hosts. Punishment could include fines or imprisonment Thirty states have laws that specify criminal penalties for adults who host or permit parties with underage drinking in the adults’ homes or on premises under the adults’ control. Under certain circumstances in some states, the crime can be enhanced to a felony.
Most states have laws holding party hosts civilly liable for any alcohol-related injuries caused by minors to whom they provided alcohol. This liability includes injuries to the intoxicated minor as well as any other people who sustain injuries or are killed because the intoxicated minor caused an accident. In some states, the law applies also to a person of any age. So the host can be liable if the person who causes an accident is an intoxicated adult.
“Social host liability” is a legal concept that some states have adopted. It allows the host of a party or other gathering to be held liable in certain situations where a guest becomes intoxicated and ends up causing injury to another person.
These laws hold social hosts liable not only for personal injury or death, but also for property damage related to such an incident. To be liable under most state’s social host laws the host must have recognized that their guest was intoxicated and should not have been served more alcohol. Such laws also apply to other intoxicating substances, such as controlled substances.
Social host liability is similar to the liability imposed by dram shop laws. The difference is that a dram shop law imposes liability only on commercial sellers of alcoholic beverages, such as bars, taverns, restaurants and liquor stores. Social host liability can be imposed on any person who provides alcoholic beverages to their guests, if that guest then injures someone while intoxicated. Most states have dram shop laws, but only a minority of states have social host liability laws.
Which States Have Social Host Liability Laws?
The following states have social host liability laws that apply to guests of all ages, i.e. both minors and adults:
- New Jersey;
- Rhode Island;
- South Carolina;
New Jersey’s social host liability law imposes liability on social hosts for injuries caused to other people by a guest who is “visibly intoxicated,” but only if the injuries result from the guest’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle. New Jersey courts have held that in this context, the word, “provide”, includes guests serving alcohol to themselves on the premises of a host. However, social hosts in New Jersey are not liable for injuries sustained by the guest, only for injuries sustained by other people.
The following states have social host liability laws that apply only to minor guests:
- New Hampshire;
The Illinois law, called the “Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act,” holds adults 18 and older “who willfully supply alcohol beverages or illegal drugs” to minors liable for injuries or deaths resulting from their intoxication. The law imposes liability for injuries to both the intoxicated minor and any other injured people. It applies to an adult host “who sells, gives, or delivers” illegal drugs or alcohol.
How Can Couples Protect Themselves from Liability?
The laws governing the alcohol liability of social hosts vary from state to state. However, couples planning their wedding can take steps to protect themselves. Some basic measures would include the following:
- Inform themselves as to whether there is a social host liability law in their state and what its provisions are;
- Purchase insurance with an alcohol liability provision that is sufficient to provide complete coverage in their state;
- Hire only certified or experienced bartenders who are independently insured;
- Hold the wedding at or near a location accessible without driving where guests might stay overnight, such as a hotel;
- Limit the amount of hard alcohol served;
- Offer non-alcoholic beverages and serve food as well;
- Stop serving alcohol altogether as the end of the event approaches;
- Do not encourage excessive drinking. This would include not having an open bar;
- Discourage excess alcohol consumption;
- Encourage guests to make use of taxis and ride share services rather than driving home after the wedding;
- If minors are expected to attend the wedding, be especially careful to ensure that no minor is provided with alcohol, as providing alcohol to a minor is a crime in 30 states.
Homeowners insurance usually provides some liquor liability coverage if their wedding is held in the person’s home, but limits are typically $100,000 to $300,000, which may not be sufficient. When purchasing insurance coverage, a person always wants to consider the value of their assets, which is what they want to protect. Of course, if the event is not held at a person’s home, then their homeowners insurance would not help them.
However, if a person is planning a wedding in their home, they want to consult their insurance professional and review their homeowners policy for any exclusions, conditions or limitations on liability that would affect their social liability risk.
There has been a change in policy language on most forms of homeowners insurance that takes away a part of that protection for social host liability. Specifically, most policies no longer cover the homeowner for liability resulting from the use of an “auto.” This is referred to in the insurance business as the “Motor Vehicle Liquor Liability Exclusion.”
So, a person who wants to protect themselves from social host liability wants to check and see if this exclusion is included in their homeowners policy. If it is, they can try to restore the coverage. Of course, their insurance company might increase their premium for adding back coverage for social host liability that arises from the use of a vehicle.
Another strategy is to purchase special event policies for just such events as weddings. If a person has concerns about their wedding, this is probably the best option. Just be sure to verify that autos are not excluded from the liquor coverage.
Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
If an alcohol liability lawsuit has been brought against you, a personal injury lawyer can advise you of your legal rights and defenses. If you are planning a wedding and are concerned with protecting yourself from social host liability, a local attorney can advise you on how to best protect yourself and your memories of your special day, while ensuring that your guests have a great time and arrive home safely.
If you have been criminally charged with providing alcohol to a minor in your home, you should consult a criminal defense attorney at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss how you can defend against the charge.