Social Host Immunity – Inviting people for drinks at your house? It’s always fun and nice to have friends or family over for a few cold drinks or some wine, whichever you prefer. But, what happens when your intoxicated friend or family member leaves your house and injures someone? What happens if it was a minor who got drunk at your house and later injures someone? Can you be held responsible? The general answer is no. This article is only for social hosts. If you want to read about possible liability for commercial establishments that furnish alcohol, click here.
Under California Civil Code §1714(b) and (d), “[T]he the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person. [N]o social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.”
Confused? I understand. I’ll try to explain what this means in ordinary English language. It simply means that the social host (the person inviting others to drink at his or her house), is not responsible for any injuries caused by the intoxicated person. But, as with most laws, there is an exception!
Civil Code §1714 goes on to state that if a parent, guardian, or another adult “knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age…the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.”
This means that if you, the social host, give alcohol to someone you know or should know is a minor (defined here as under 21-years-old), and that minor subsequently causes an injury to someone else, you may be responsible for that injury. I say “may” because the California legislature and the courts have made it very hard to sue a social host.
Let’s look at some cases that will help you put this more in perspective. In Blies v. Richter, the plaintiff (Blies) and defendant (Richter) went on a drinking binge at some restaurants and social clubs (there are two Richters, but for simplification, I’m just going to say there is one). Afterwards, they went back to Richter’s house and drank more alcohol. Other friends later joined them for this party and they all drank, of course. Richter and Blies both went to sleep (probably passed out drunk). However, Richter’s other guests kept on drinking and were free to raid the house for more alcohol. During the middle of the night, one of the drunk guest smoked a cigarette and caused a fire. The plaintiff, Blies, suffered mental and physical injuries due to the fire. Blies sued Richter. Richter asserted the Social Host Immunity Defense.
In order to try to get around this, Blies argued that Richter failed to supervise his other guests and because of such failure, his guest caused Blies harm. This is the “Failure to Supervise Theory.” An interesting argument, but one the court disagreed with. This theory is based on the requirement to look after those whose coordination and judgment have been affected by alcohol. But the court said that there is no requirement to supervise and thus, there can be no failure to supervise. Blies v. Richter (1988) 206 Cal.App.3d 325.
In another case called Allen v. Liberman (2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 46, a minor named Shelby went to the Libermans’ house to spend the night with her friend, Kali, a minor. Kali was the Libermans’ daughter. The Libermans were partying but went to sleep at about 10:00 p.m. The Libermans left their alcohol out in the open. Shelby and Kali drank the alcohol. Shelby took 15 shots of vodka. Kali drank an unknown amount. Shelby later threw up in the toilet and passed out in the bathroom. In the morning, fearing that something was wrong, Kali called the police. The police arrived, but Shelby died shortly thereafter. It was later determined that Shelby died of alcohol poisoning. Her blood alcohol level was .339. Shelby’s parents (Allens) sued the Libermans. Shelby’s parents argued that the Social Host Immunity did not apply because it says that the social host must “furnish” the alcohol to seek protection under Social Host Immunity. The court held that was absurd because “it makes no sense to interpret the statute in a manner that gives a person immunity for directly handing a drink to a minor, but affords no similar protection to a person who fails to lock up the liquor cabinet to prevent the minor from helping herself to alcohol.”
The Allens also argued that there was a special relationship between Shelby and the Libermans because Shelby was a minor and she was invited into the Libermans’ home. This created a special relationship that the Libermans had a duty to act to help Shelby when they found out she was drunk in their home. This essentially was a “Good Samaritan” argument. Basically, the premise is that you have no duty to help another without a special relationship. If you do have that special relationship, you can only be held liable if you acted with gross negligence.
The court said that there may be a duty because Shelby is a minor, but the Libermans did not supervise Shelby, they did not furnish alcohol to her, they did not prevent her from drinking, they did not assist her overnight after she passed out. The Libermans did nothing to cause her death. There was no evidence that the Libermans acted even negligently. The court even went further and stated if there was this special relationship, it does not negate the application of the social host immunity. The court seemed determined to follow the legislatures’ intent as much as possible to shield social hosts from liability.
The following case is very interesting and shows that a good plaintiff’s attorney who his clever and has the experience and knowledge with personal injury law, can still beat this Social Immunity Defense. In Ennabe v. Manosa (2014) 58 Cal.4th 697, the California Supreme Court ruled that a social host who charged an entrance fee to a minor, could be held liable under the Commercial Host Laws. Manosa, who was throwing a party at her parent’s vacation rental charged between $3-$5 as an entrance fee. Manosa provided the alcohol. Ennabe and Garcia (both minors) later arrived. Both were visibly intoxicated upon arrival and paid the entrance fee. Ennabe and Garcia consumed alcohol at the party and Garcia was later kicked out. Ennabe walked Garcia out to Garcia’s car. An altercation between Ennabe and another party goer occurred. Ennabe ran after this other party goer. While Ennabe was attempting to do, Garcia was already driving his car and ran over Ennabe, killing Ennabe. Ennabe sued Manosa (the social host) for wrongful death. Manosa sought protection under the Social Host Immunity Law. The California Supreme Court found that Social Host Immunity Law was inapplicable in this situation because Manosa charged an entrance fee to her drinking party. Thus she was no longer a “social host” but rather a commercial establishment. By charging an entrance fee, this then fell under the Commercial Host Laws (also known as Dram Shop Laws). Essentially, because Manosa sold alcoholic beverages or caused them to be sold (by charging an entrance fee), she can be held liable under the exception of the Commercial Host Laws. The Commercial Host Laws allow for civil liabilities if a commercial establishment furnishes alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor. This was a very clever argument by Plaintiff’s attorney and they were successful in beating the Social Host Immunity Defense.
The Social Host Immunity Laws are very strict. That means that the courts will not expand the meaning of the law or the intent of the legislature to allow any kind of lawsuit against a social host. The plaintiff’s lawyers were very creative in their arguments, but ultimately failed. However, it does not mean that a social host is totally immune from liability. The key here is if they “knew or should have known” that they furnish alcohol to a minor. From the court’s perspective, furnishing alcohol must mean some overt act. Not just leaving alcohol around where the minor can get it. Not just having it available to the minor or others. The courts seem to require some sort of action on the part of the social host. Obviously, not acting is an action in and of itself, but that is not enough. The court wants some action like physically giving the minor the alcohol. If you believe that you were injured by an intoxicated minor that just left a party, please call The Law Firm of R. Sam to discuss your case immediately.