That Demon Spirit! – Alcohol Liability and the Social Host

Many of us enjoy a happy hour cocktail, a beer at a cookout, or a nightcap after a long day. Consumption of alcoholic beverages is a regular and often anticipated part of social interaction. With summer upon us, the frequency of parties, cookouts, reunions, golf outings, picnics and the like provide many opportunities for us to relax and “lift a couple cold ones” with friends and colleagues. But if you are the host of one of these get-togethers, what sort of liability are you risking if something goes wrong and an accident occurs? Here are a couple of situations to consider.

In Ohio, a social host is generally not liable for a guest’s self-inflicted injury or death due to the consequences of that person’s own voluntary intoxication. This rule applies regardless whether the guest is of legal drinking age or whether the guest is an adult but not yet of legal drinking age (i.e., ages 18-20). Additionally, a social host who provides alcohol to an intoxicated guest of legal drinking age is not liable to third parties later injured by that guest. This rule may particularly be appreciated by employers hosting employee outings. Ohio courts have considered various tragic accidents in which an employee who had imbibed too much is involved in an accident on the way home from a voluntary outing, injuring another person, and ruled that the employer is considered a social host where participation in the outing was not mandatory and that the employer is, therefore, not liable to the third party. E.g., Whelan v. Vanderwist of Cincinnati, Case No. 2007-G-2769, 2008-Ohio-2135 (11th Dist.)

Another topic on many parents’ minds in particular is potential liability for injuries resulting from underage drinking. Graduation parties, bonfires or just “mom and dad aren’t home” parties are easy summer situations where underage drinking can occur. As a parent, while you can permit your own child to consume alcoholic beverages at home, you cannot provide your child’s friends who are under legal drinking age alcohol, even in your home, (unless the friend’s parent, spouse of drinking age or guardian is actually present there as well and consents) and you cannot knowingly allow an underage person (other than your child) to remain in your home or on your property while consuming or possessing alcohol. Also, different than with adult guests, a social host can be liable for injuries to third parties caused by the negligence of an underage person to whom the host has furnished alcohol. Ohio Revised Code §4301.69; Williams v. VFW Brookville Mem. Post No. 3227, Inc., 99 Ohio App.3d 213 (2nd Dist. 1994).

Occasional exception to the liability for permitting underage drinking has been found. For example, in Williams v. Walraven, Case No. 12CA18, 2013-Ohio-473 (4th Dist.), property owners who permitted their property to be used by others to hold a graduation party were found not to be liable as social hosts after a party guest died following an altercation at the party where he was stabbed by an intoxicated underage assailant.  The property owners were not present at the party and had provided specific direction that no one under 21 could consume alcohol on their property and that no one under the age of 18 could attend the party.

The author, Erin B. Moore, Esquire, is a shareholder at Green & Green, Lawyers whose practice includes defending alcohol liability issues in both social host and liquor permit holder situations. If you have questions in these areas, Green & Green has the experience and skill to assist.