Liabiliity for Personal Injuries from Accidental Death of Teenager Greater If Andover Mother Was Present During Overnight Party

SOCIAL HOST LIABILITY – PART TWO

This is part Two of a two part blogpost, in which Boston Personal Injury Lawyer, Keith L. Miller, analyzes liability issues in the recent drowning death in Andover, Massachusetts.

It now appears that a parent was present in the Andover home where an overnight teenage party ended with the drowning death of one of the female guests. The Essex County District Attorney has convened a grand jury, which is taking testimony of persons present to determine if any crimes were committed related to the death (For Additional Information see February 19, 2009 Blog, Social Host Liability -Part One ).

BEER PONG.jpgIf the evidence indeed demonstrates that these underage students were permitted to consume alcohol, or more seriously, if a parent procured or supplied the alcohol for the party, then both criminal and civil liability may attach. However, the issue of whether premises liability can attach to these facts is not as clear as it may seem, as no Massachusetts appeals court has expressly articulated a position on these particular facts.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has long held that a social host can be found liable for injury in one particular instance. In a 1986 decision,
Mc-Guiggan v. N.E. Tel. and Tel. Co.
, the Court created a common law theory of liability of a social host “to a person injured by an intoxicated guest’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person’s injury.”

The duty is imposed because it is believed that the social host knew or should have known that the guest was drunk and was in a position to protect an innocent third party from the harm. In Mc-Guiggan, the Court elected not to impose liability even though the 18 year old operator of the motor vehicle admitted he had consumed alcohol at a graduation party, and pleaded guilty to operating under the influence, after his passenger and friend died from injuries suffered when his head hit a concrete post as he put leaned out of the car window to vomit.

In Mc-Guiggan, based on testimony of the homeowners and others, the Court determined that the evidence was legally insufficient to demonstrate that the hosts knew or should have known that the driver was so impaired that he could not or should not be driving. And this was so even though the blood alcohol level of the driver was still above the legal limit 3 hours after the accident.

In such circumstances, the appellate courts have nonetheless expressed a willingness to impose liability one a case by case basis based on the concept that as between the social host and the general public, the social host is in the primary and the best position to prevent harm to others resulting from a guest’s intoxication.

Such is not the general case with respect to the duty of social hosts to adult guests, and in particular when alcohol is involved. Rather, it has generally been the law in Massachusetts that a social host has no duty to an adult guest who becomes intoxicated and injures himself.

This limitation on liability was further extended by the Massachusetts Appeals Court in a 2004 decision,
Sampson v. MacDougall 
where the Court refused to impose liability when an 18 year old attended a party and consumed alcohol supplied by friends, including the son of the homeowner who was of age. He subsequently fell while attempting to jump over a fence, ending up a quadriplegic as a result of the fall.  The Court articulated its rationale that as between a social host and a guest, the guest was in a much better position to prevent harm to himself or herself even when the guest was under the minimum drinking age.

The Plaintiff had contended that social hosts and social companions who supplied alcohol to an intoxicated underage adult should be held liable for injuries he had sustained where their conduct was wilful, wanton, or reckless. The Court defined this as intentional “conduct, by way either of commission or of omission where there is a duty to act, which conduct involves a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another.”

The Court disagreed. Although the Plaintiff was an underage drinker, he was nonetheless an adult who was responsible for his own conduct and injured himself. Neither his hosts, nor his friends who facilitated the acquisition of the alcohol he consumed, had a legal duty to prevent him from suffering the consequences of his voluntary intoxication.

The Court specifically refused to extend liability to such situations, believing that the imposition of liability on social hosts for wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct was a matter of social policy on which the Supreme Judicial Court had deferred to the Legislature. To date, the Massachusetts legislature has declined to do so.

Although the details are still vague in this recent tragic death in Andover, it appears likely that an overnight party took place where alcohol was consumed by underage students in the presence of an adult parent of one of the children. Based on the present state of social host law in Massachusetts, and without more facts, this may be a case, as in MacDougall, where the parent had no duty to the guests, and in particular to this girl, if she voluntarily consumed alcohol to excess, and drowned as a result. This would be so, notwithstanding the parent’s specific knowledge that there was alcohol being consumed at the party.

However, if the investigation subsequently reveals that the parent either procured or supplied the alcohol, the analysis may be different and a duty might be imposed by a judge and later affirmed by an appellate court. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding a not so subtle plea by the Courts, to date, the Massachusetts legislature has thus far elected not to act.

The question remains. Can we rely on young adults to police themselves and each other when it comes to responsible social drinking? Should consenting parents and their insurers escape responsibility and the financial consequences of their election, conscious or negligent, to permit illegal drinking and partying to take place within their homes or other zones of control? The answer seems obvious, and this most recent drowning death, combined with another similar incident, which took place in Norfolk last fall,  may finally result in some changes in the law of the Commonwealth.