Hosting Teen Parties: What’s Your Liability?

By Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq.

I have nieces and nephews who range in age from eighteen to late twenties. I am sure it was a real drag for them when their fun-loving, risk-taking aunt turned into an overly cautious, suspicious lawyer. Sure, they’ll be happy to have me if they ever get divorced or sued, but until then, I suspect they’ll resent the cold dose of reality I bring with me to the parties they throw at the family homestead. You see, my job is to expect that the unthinkable will actually happen at one of those parties and take steps to prevent it. Their job is to have a great time, then stand around wringing their hands if the unthinkable actually does happen.

Here’s the scenario. Your daughter is graduating from high school and you throw her a huge backyard bash to celebrate the occasion. You hire a caterer, find a DJ, and hit Costco for cases of beer (for you and the other adults attending) and soda (for her). The attendees are an eclectic mix of family, your friends and co-workers, and your daughter’s friends. You’ve warned your daughter that there will be no underage drinking at this party and she agrees to spread the word. Your daughter and her friends have never given you an ounce of worry, so you trust them completely. Therefore, you are shocked to learn the next day that a few of her friends smuggled some of the beer into the garage and proceeded to get drunk under your roof. They then got in a car and wrapped themselves around a tree. Shock turns to confusion later on when you are sued for negligence by the parents of the kids in the car. You call a lawyer and self-righteously exclaim “We’re not liable! We told those kids they were not allowed to drink in our home!” Guess again.

As a general rule, an individual is not liable for the negligent act of someone else. However, there are a few exceptions. The biggest exception is when you have the ability to control the actions of that third person. Although you certainly did not force your guest to drink the alcohol, simply providing the alcohol for possible consumption gives you some level of control of their behavior. In our scenario, since the party was at your house, and you provided the alcohol, you are known as the “social host”. Social host liability varies greatly from state to state, and may depend on the age of the person who gets drunk. A related type of liability arises from what is commonly known as “dram shop” laws; these laws regulate the activity of those people who provide alcohol for profit. Because the alcohol is usually free at backyard barbeques, they generally garner “social host” liability rather than dram shop law. However, make the mistake of charging $5 per red plastic “keg cup” and you may just find yourself with dreaded dram shop liability.

Back to our scenario. As the social host of your daughter’s graduation party, you are being sued for negligently providing alcohol to someone who later drove away from your house and harmed others. The fact that the driver is also a minor may be relevant in your state; some states impose liability only when social hosts provide alcohol to minors. Other states only impose liability if you knew or should have known that the person you provided the alcohol to was already intoxicated and would later be driving a car (thus, maybe no liability for the first beer, but by the third beer you become liable). Still other states impose no social host liability at all, unless you are selling the alcohol. Check your state’s laws before you host your next party.

I know what you’re thinking: “This doesn’t apply to me. I didn’t ‘provide’ the alcohol because I told those kids they could not drink it.” This slight technicality will probably matter little to a jury staring at a paraplegic victim. You were in the best position to ensure Johnny didn’t drink your beer. Had you been doing your job as a social host, he would not have been able to sneak those beers by you.

Over and above social host liability, you may also be liable for negligently supervising the driver if he was under eighteen. Some states make parents liable not only for the actions of their own children, but also for the actions of their child’s friends, if the friend had been entrusted to your care. For instance, if Johnny comes to your house for a party, you are responsible for supervising him while he’s there to ensure that he does not harm himself or others. Allowing him to drive away from your house drunk would be a bad idea, whether or not you provided him with the alcohol.

As much as my intent here is to encourage you to be a better social host, there may be some light at the end of this dreary tunnel. As social host liability arises from actions you took while at your house, the personal liability portion of your homeowner’s policy may cover this particular scenario (although it would certainly not cover punitive damages; read Parental Liability for Underage Drivers for a detailed discussion of punitive damages). There is also a possibility that your automobile policy would cover a portion of it too, since the incident happened while someone was driving. If you get sued, always notify the carriers for all of your insurance polices; what they cover may actual surprise you.

How can you minimize the chances of the above scenario happening to you?

  1. Don’t buy alcohol for parties when minors will be attending. Eliminate the alcohol and the problem goes away. However, be aware that this does not prevent others from bringing alcohol into your home. It also may make for a very boring affair. It’s much more fun to see Uncle Hector dancing in the conga line than discussing the price of gas. A solution would be to mandate that all car keys get handed in upon arrival or that all kids sleep over in the family room. This is much more responsible (and realistic) parenting than dictating “no drinking” and then burying your head in the sand.
  2. Stop thinking of your children and their friends as either “good” kids or “bad” kids. Good kids drink too! Most kids experiment with alcohol and drugs, no matter what their background, intelligence or level of responsibility. This, in and of itself, does not make them “bad”. It makes them “kids!” Allowing for the possibility up front will save a lot of heartache later on.
  3. Buy the most liability insurance you can afford. If you have assets, it is essential to have adequate automobile, homeowner, and umbrella coverage.
  4. Have your party in a banquet hall! If you have the means, forego the backyard barbeque and put the liability on someone else. Because they are subject to the more severe “dram shop” laws, owners of banquet facilities are fully aware of the dangers of serving alcohol to minors or those who are already intoxicated. They train their bartenders and security people to be on the lookout for teens trying to drink on the premises. Although you will pay for the privilege, shifting the liability to someone else is a great idea.
  5. If you encounter resistance from your child about implementing any of the above suggestions, it may be time to seek professional advice about your teen. A rational, well-adjusted child will appreciate the danger inherent in throwing these backyard parties and will want to protect the family from a potentially disastrous law suit. If she places the value of a good time for her friends above all else, it may be a sign of a bigger problem. Drug or alcohol use may already have expanded beyond the experimental stage and be influencing her decisions. If she can not or will not see the bigger picture, it’s time to get help.

Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is an attorney practicing family law in the Los Angeles area and is a former insurance defense lawyer. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.