Massachusetts’ highest court recently declined to expand the scope of the state’s “social host liability” law to include a 19-year-old girl who (without the knowledge or permission of her absent father) knowingly allowed underage guests to use her father’s home to drink alcohol. She did not, herself, supply the hooch. After consuming one or two mixed drinks and six or seven cans of beer (all of which he had brought to the party and served to himself), a fellow 19-year-old—and invited guest—crashed his car into a utility pole at 96 mph in a 30 mph speed zone with his 16-year-old girlfriend in the passenger seat.
Massachusetts’ social host liability law is a judicial creation, established and honed by court decisions—not by statute. Once again the court refused to impose liability unless the host either actually served the alcohol to the inebriated guest, or exercised effective control over the supply of alcohol to that guest. Simply owning or controlling the premises was not enough. The court recognized “a number of practical difficulties inherent in imposing on social hosts a duty to police the conduct of guests who drink their own liquor.” Specifically, the majority expressed doubt that a host could effectively prevent a guest from drinking his own supply, and also argued that the “unpleasant—and potentially counterproductive—enforcement methods available to hosts, such as physically ejecting a drunken guest,” would doubtless increase the likelihood that the “shut off” guest would drive while drunk. A concurring justice argued that there was already sufficient evidence of a “widespread social consensus” that underage drinking and driving is “a social problem of enormous significance,” and that society is committed to prevent or limit its occurrence “in whatever ways we can.” Maybe even in court. Next time. // Michael Racette