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Social Host Liability News in Massachusetts

As a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer, we have represented many people who are injured as a result of illegal and negligent serving of alcohol to people who go on to injure an innocent third person. When the host, or provider, of the alcohol can be found responsible, that is called social host liability in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, if you can prove that a liquor store sold alcohol to someone already intoxicated, or that a bartender served to such a person, you can show that they breached their duty to third persons, out there on the road, and hold the seller or server responsible for civil money damages.
 
What about when the alcohol was served at a party? Since 1986 Massachusetts’s courts have ruled that if you supply the alcohol, you may be held responsible.
 
In that year the Supreme Judicial Court held, in McGuiggan v. New England Telephone, that from now on “a relevant consideration will be whether the social host knew or reasonably should have known that the intoxicated guest might presently operate a motor vehicle” before serving him alcohol. This decision changed social host law in Massachusetts dramatically.
 
The cases have not held that there is a duty to a guest, who becomes intoxicated, and then injures himself. In 2001 the Court decided Panagakos v. Walsh, a case in which a minor was served at a bar and subsequently was killed while walking along the highway. The estate sued the bar and deceased’s companions who were of age and facilitated his use of a false identification. The Court cited Hamilton v. Ganias (1994) as standing for the proposition that if one is an “adult” he or she is responsible for their own actions. In Sampson v. MacDougal, a 2004 case, it was determined that even though the injured party was a minor, age 18, the Court would not impose liability on the homeowner even though it was the homeowner who served the minor alcohol, reasoning that the 18 year old was an “adult” and was in the best position to prevent harm to himself.
 
If an 18 year old is an adult, why can’t s/he buy alcohol? The Courts, in these various decisions, point out that it is for the legislature to make the laws; their job is to interpret the laws.
 
In a decision handed down last week, February 2012, Juliano vs. Simpson the Supreme Judicial Court held that notwithstanding the fact that there was a teenage drinking party, if the host did not supply the alcohol, the host can not be held liable to third parties injured by an intoxicated guest, even if the third party was a 16 year old guest. The Court said, “liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol.” The reasoning was, essentially, that the host could not control the amount of consumption; the host was like a bartender, who would only be responsible if he or she had some control over what and how much a customer/guest was consuming.
 
None of the above should be interpreted as license to serve or allow minors to have alcohol; or to be intentionally absent from hosting, knowing about a party. The facts in each case are different, and when there are horrendous injuries, are there often are when mixing alcohol and motor vehicles in Massachusetts the victims will pursue all forms of discovery, which often lead to clear responsibility to the hosts.