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California Homeowner Liability for Injuries at Social Gatherings

California, Law, Personal Injury, Serving AlcoholThe California Supreme Court is set to decide a case which may expand the liability of California homeowners for social gatherings where alcohol is served and people sustain injuries or are killed.  The case was filed on behalf of a party-goer who was killed at a social event hosted by the homeowner’s teenage children and has been litigated and appealed from the trial court level all the way to the Cal. Sup. Ct.  (See Los Angeles Times story here).

Legal Background of Social Host Liability and Immunity Laws in California

Prior to the early to mid 1970’s, California case law had several opinions which held party hosts liable for serving alcohol if this resulted in injury or death to any of the attendees to the party. (E.g. Coulter v. Superior Court, 21 Cal.3d 144 – California Supreme Court held that a non-commercial supplier of alcohol [apartment complex owner and manager] could be held liable for injuries caused by drunken participants to third parties harmed by the intoxicated person).  The California Legislature decided that it wanted to limit such legal exposure for social hosts and amended California Civil Code 1714 to read as follows:

“(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to abrogate the holdings in cases such as Vesely v. Sager (1971) 5 Cal.3d 153, Bernhard v. Harrah’s Club (1976) 16 Cal.3d 313, and Coulter v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal.3d 144 and to reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that 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. (c)  … no 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.”

This amended subsection of the statute, therefore, provided immunity to civil lawsuits against hosts of social gatherings for personal injury and wrongful death claims by persons injured by people who had consumed alcohol at their function.  However, the code also added an exception to this rule of immunity for knowingly serving alcohol to persons under the age of 21.  This provision was set forth in subsection (d) of Cal. Civ. Code as follows:

“Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who 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, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.”

Therefore, even with social host immunity, if an adult threw a party at their home and they knew or should have known that underage drinkers were present but, continued to serve alcohol, this could be actionable.  The selling of alcohol also became a means to argue that the homeowners had gone from being “social hosts” to being commercial purveyors of liquor and should be held accountable for serving obviously intoxicated minors under California Business and Professions Code 25602.1.

Issue Presented in Manoso Case: Should the Parents of Teens Hosting a Party Be Held Liable if There is a “Cover Charge” to Get In?

The facts of the case currently pending before the Cal. Supreme Court were that a group of teenagers decided to throw a party at a rental house owned by their parents.  They charged a fee to get into the party which they claim was just to “defray the cost of alcohol” but, the plaintiff contends was a fee for serving drinks.  One of the party goers got extremely intoxicated and began acting irrationally including pulling his pants down.  Several of the friends of the host decided to “escort” him off the property and got him to his vehicle.   The drunken individual then ran over and killed one of the fellow partiers.  He was criminally convicted of vehicular manslaughter.  The deceased person’s family then filed a wrongful death claim against the party hosts and their parents (the homeowners).   The court is deciding whether the “cover charge” turned the affair from social to commercial in nature, thereby, exposing the hosts and the property owners to civil liability.

Should the homeowners be found liable, this would set a precedent for future claims by persons injured at or near residential parties in California.   Depending upon the wording and scope of the ruling, home grown parties where fees are charged could require much more close supervision to prevent a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.

Related Legal Resources:  Personal Injury Liability for California Bars or Restaurants Serving Underage Drinkers

For a full copy of the appellate decision go to:  http://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/2014/s189577.html

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