We all know the deal. Mom and Dad go away for the weekend and its game on. A keg of Natty Light, a couple of Ping-Pong balls, red Solo cups and a bunch of buzzed 17-year-olds drinking themselves cool. More often than not the damage caused by such shenanigans can be remedied with a mop, some hot water and one or two heavy duty black garbage bags. No harm, no foul.
Occasionally, however, something goes awry. The drunk girl trips over her own feet and ends up with a few stiches in her chin. A tough guy gets into a petty argument over a disputed drinking game rule and settles it by breaking someone’s nose. Even worse, maybe the kid who showed up drunk and left wasted crashes his car into a tree a few blocks away after being kicked out for causing a scene. Mom and Dad warned something like this would happen. They even specifically forbid their son from having anyone over. The homeowners cannot be held liable, can they? Surprising to some, in New Jersey and many other States, the answer is, ‘Yes’.
Generally speaking, social hosts are protected against personal injury actions arising out of the negligence of one of their guests. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.6 places significant obstacles in front of an injured person who wishes to recover.
The statute provides:
A person who sustains bodily injury or injury to real or personal property as a result of the negligent provision of alcoholic beverages by a social host to a person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages may recover damages from a social host only if:
(1) The social host willfully and knowingly provided alcoholic beverages either:
(a) To a person who was visibly intoxicated in the social host’s presence; or
(b) To a person who was visibly intoxicated under circumstances manifesting reckless disregard of the consequences as affecting the life or property of another; and
(2) The social host provided alcoholic beverages to the visibly intoxicated person under circumstances which created an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the life or property of another, and the social host failed to exercise reasonable care and diligence to avoid the foreseeable risk; and
(3) The injury arose out of an accident caused by the negligent operation of a vehicle by the visibly intoxicated person who was provided alcoholic beverages by a social host.
The threshold set in this statute is extremely high. It is designed to protect homeowners and their insurers from liability. It allows a third party to recovery against a social host for the negligent provision of alcohol only in very limited circumstances. Moreover, N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) further serves to protect homeowners by providing that any person who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol in connection with an accident, “shall have no cause of action for the recovery of economic or non-economic loss sustained as a result of the accident.” Therefore, as a general rule, recovery is possible only when the injury is sustained as a result of a motor vehicle accident and only when the injured party is completely innocent. Even then, it must be shown that both the driver of the vehicle was incredible drunk and the homeowner was incredibly reckless.
In New Jersey, these safeguards are thrown out the window when underage drinking is involved. N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.6 is facially limited to instances where the drunk party-goer is of legal drinking age. This means that the homeowner can still be held liable if the drunk guest was underage. This was affirmed by the court in Componile v. Maybee, 273 N.J.Super. 402 (1994), through their reading of the text of the statute which provides that “no social host shall be liable to a person who has attained legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages for damages suffered as a result of the social host’s negligent provision of alcoholic beverages to the person.” Furthermore, this holding has been expanded to provide for potential liability even in cases of intentional tort, such as assault.
Moreover, it is no longer required that the adult homeowners be present when alcohol was served. Here, traditional notions of negligence law are applied. If Mom and Dad have reason to believe that their kid is likely to have a party when they are out of town, and the injury is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of said party, Mom and Dad are on the hook.
The rationale behind expanding liability to homeowners for injuries caused by drunk guests who are underage is that society has recognized that alcohol clouds judgment. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the dangerous effects of alcohol are greater when consumed by those under the age of 21. As such, our courts place a greater responsibility on adults in such instances in an effort to ensure the safety of all.