Victims of Massachusetts Drunk Drivers Can’t Get Social Host Coverage

There has been longstanding law in Massachusetts that protects victims of drunk drivers who were served alcohol by a Massachusetts homeowner who knew, or should have known, that the driver should not have been allowed out of the home and onto the roads. The law was from the case Worcester Mutual Insurance v. Marnell, which was decided in 1986.

The way it has worked for decades is as follows: if you, or a loved one, is injured or killed by a drunk driver who was served by a homeowner, you can file a claim against two separate and distinct parties: the homeowner, for negligently serving the alcohol and allowing the driver to drive, and the driver, for his or her negligence in driving. The practical consequence is that there have been two insurance policies to help compensate victims for their injuries: homeowners insurance and automobile insurance. For serious injuries in Massachusetts this duel approach has been effective in helping victims to recover damages in Massachusetts.
However, there is a disturbing trend in Massachusetts which does not bode well for victims of such collisions. In the case recently decided by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, a homeowner hosted a party in Lawrence where alcohol was served to a minor. The homeowner allowed the minor guest to leave the party and drive a motor vehicle. The vehicle struck another vehicle resulting in serious personal injuries to the persons in that other vehicle. However, in this case, Massachusetts Property Insurance Underwriting Association v. Berry, the Court noted that the specific language in the homeowners policy excluded insurance coverage for “motor vehicle liability” arising out of the operation of a vehicle “by any person” notwithstanding the fact that the operator of the vehicle at issue was not owned by the homeowners.
There seems to be a trend with the Massachusetts and federal courts, based on new languages in insurance policies, to limit coverage. In a case called Yerardi v. Pacific Indem Co, the federal court, using Massachusetts law, precluded coverage for a spouse of the insured. In another case, Hingham Mutual Fire Insurance v. Smith, involving sexual assault by the homeowner’s son, a family claimed that there was negligent supervision. However, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals held that the Marnell case involved auto insurance and did not apply.
The significance, from the prospective of a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer, is that there is increasingly less insurance coverage available to victims in Massachusetts. The insurance companies are trying to tighten the drafting of the language in their policies. And, the courts are preventing victims from using all of the traditionally available insurance policies to protect those that are injured.
One way to combat this trend, on a personal level, is to be sure to purchase sufficient Massachusetts underinsurance coverage. This coverage, which you buy on your own policy, would apply to you and your family. It generally provides insurance coverage in addition to the insurance coverage of the drunk driver.