Are you liable if someone gets into an accident after drinking at your party? According to social host liability laws in Massachusetts, the answer is yes, under certain circumstances. If the guest was intoxicated at the time you served them alcohol, and if there was a reasonable expectation of violent or neglectful behavior, you could be held liable for civil damages.
Under Massachusetts Social Host Law, or Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 138, Section 34, you could also face a fine of up to $2,000 and/or imprisonment for up to a year.
The Logic Behind Social Host Liability Law
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), there were 119 drunk driving deaths in Massachusetts during the year 2016. That’s 33 percent of all traffic fatalities in the state. Massachusetts ranks 35 out of the 50 states in terms of drunk driving fatalities. Year after year, data from MADD show that states with comprehensive drunk driving laws have fewer fatalities.
Here, we look at three cases in which the courts considered applying this law.
- In McGuiggan v. New England Telephone & Telegraph (1986), an intoxicated party guest has an automobile accident with tragic consequences.
- Destefano v. Endicott College (2017) involves a drunken student who beat up three people tries to blame the college for his violent behavior.
In Pollard v. Powers (2000), four men gatecrash an underage keg party and sucker punch a guest.
McGuiggan v. NET&T
The first time social host law as applied was in the case of McGuiggan v. New England Telephone & Telegraph Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986).
The host had served alcohol to a party guest who offered their son and a three other guests a lift home. The son felt sick, so he stuck his head and upper body out the window of the car and struck a cement post at the side of the road. He died four hours later in the hospital.
The court found the defendants not liable because they did not know the guest was intoxicated when he left the house. Other guests, including occupants of the car, agreed the driver seemed okay.
However, the court said that it would recognize the liability of the host if they knew or should have known the guest was drunk. The court held the view that the person’s voluntary consumption alone was the “proximate cause” of the third party’s injury.
Destefano v. Endicott (2017)
In February 2014, a 19-year-old student at Endicott College in Beverley, Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault and battery after allegedly attacking three students following a dorm party at which he had become inebriated. The student later filed suit against the college, citing its failure to preventing him from consuming alcohol while underage as a violation of the state’s social host liability law. The college filed a motion to dismiss the charges without trial, to which the Superior Court agreed.
Pollard v. Powers
An unsupervised teenager holds a keg party while her parent, who had given her permission to invite ‘three or four friends, is out of town. The party crowd swells to between 30 and 50, including four obviously drunk and obnoxious gate crashers. Unwilling to phone the police on them because she is having an illegal party, the host allows them in and gives them access to the two kegs of beer on the patio.
After verbally assaulting the host’s sister, one of the four men suddenly sucker punches the host’s former boyfriend. On appeal, the courts found that the host knew the guests were intoxicated when she allowed them alcohol. There was also a reasonable expectation of violent behavior. The case was referred to Massachusetts Superior Court.
The consequences of a judgment against you under Massachusetts social host laws, including civil damages, fines, and possible imprisonment, are severe. In the case of McGuiggan v. NET&T, even though the host was not found to be liable, the subsequent accident took the life of his own son.
If you are having a party where you will make alcohol available to your guests, would you really want to be responsible, in any manner, for someone’s serious injury or death? If a guest in your home is obviously drunk, put them to bed and take the keys.