Is a Social Host Liable When a Minor Gets Drunk and Drives?

Driving under the influence of alcohol is always dangerous and particularly so when it involves minors. A new case explores the civil liability of parents who allow kids to drink alcohol on their property, when those kids end up driving under the influence of alcohol and causing injury to others.

Tragic DUI Accident Leads to Lawsuit

The case arose when a 17-year-old boy died in a car accident that his family alleged was caused by the driver of his vehicle. That driver, he alleged, was intoxicated. The deceased’s family sued the family of the driver. The family alleged that the driver’s house was used as a “party house,” and that days before the party, the parents of the driver had purchased alcohol in preparation for the party.

According to testimony, the mother in the house knew that the driver was intoxicated and observed him as such, yet failed to do anything about it. Eventually the intoxicated driver left the house, driving the other boys in his truck. A boy riding in the truck bed was ejected and killed.

The property owner was charged with allowing a minor to drink alcohol, a crime in Maryland, and the family of the deceased boy sued the parents of the driver. However, the trial court in the civil case dismissed all the allegations, and the family appealed the decision.

Appellate Court Examines Maryland Social Host Laws

As a general proposition, Maryland law does not hold establishment owners liable for what happens to those who drink on their property and then injure others (sometimes called Dram Shop laws).

Maryland law does provide that someone can be held civilly liable for torts that arise from violation of criminal laws. Thus, the victim’s family here contended that because the driver’s family violated the criminal law regarding providing alcohol to minors, that they could be held liable for their child’s death even without Dram Shop Laws.

The Appellate court agreed that the law, even though it was criminal and not civil, was enacted to protect minors from beings served alcohol.

However, the court could not find that furnishing the alcohol was the cause of the accident. Rather, the court found that it was the actual drinking by the minor that caused the accident. Thus, the violation of the criminal statute is not what caused the actual injury.

The court also found that the parents did not do anything affirmatively, or take any action to assume any responsibility for the deceased minor—rather, they passively acquiesced to the minors’ drinking. That alone was held to be insufficient for the parents to be held liable for the child’s death. The parents had no “special relationship” with the minors that were at their home, and were not charged with any special duty to look after or care for them.

The appellate court thus held that the case was properly dismissed and that there was no liability by the family of the intoxicated driver.

If you are injured by a driver who is driving under the influence, it may not be just a criminal matter. You may have the right to file an injury lawsuit for your damages. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.