Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Grab a Drink and Pass the Blame: An Argument against Social Host Liability

Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Grab a Drink and Pass the Blame: An Argument against Social Host Liability

Article excerpt

UNDERAGE DRINKING in the United States remains an endemic problem. While every state has set a minimum drinking age of twenty-one, underage persons continue to drink. (1) Alcohol is the most widely used substance of abuse among America's youth, more than both tobacco and illicit drugs. (2) While the notion of underage drinking is neither new nor novel, the statistics are nonetheless surprising. Underage drinkers are responsible for over sixteen percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, (3) and underage students consume nearly half of all of the alcohol consumed by students attending four-year colleges and universities. (4) Furthermore, statistics show that underage drinking is often reckless and extremely dangerous. In a 2001 college survey, approximately forty-four percent of college students reported that they had engaged in binge drinking, (5) which is usually defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women. (6) Each year, drinking by college students, ages eighteen to twenty-four, contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths, almost 600,000 injuries, nearly 700,000 assaults, and about 100,000 instances of alcohol related sexual assault or date rape. (7) Looking at underage drinkers as a whole, the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that approximately 5,000 persons under the age of twenty-one die each year from alcohol-related injuries involving underage drinking. (8)

Minimum-age laws have not prevented those under the age of twenty-one from drinking, let alone from drinking in excess. In the face of national campaigns, resolutions by both houses of Congress, initiatives by the U.S. Surgeon General, and multimillion-dollar campaigns, (9) the amount of underage drinking has been virtually unchanged. (10) As minimum-age laws fail to prevent underage drinking, more and more states have turned to imposing civil liability on those that provide alcohol to underage drinkers. In a report issued by the National Academies Institute of Medicine, states and localities are urged to enact a comprehensive set of strategies to reduce underage alcohol consumption, including strengthening social host liability laws. (11)

Social host liability "imposes, by statute or court decision, a civil duty on social hosts across the relevant state that can be enforced through litigation brought by injured private parties seeking monetary damages against the host." (12) Social host liability is similar to, but not the same as dram shop acts, which allow third parties to recover from those that sell alcohol to an individual. (13) Instead, social host liability allows anyone who furnishes alcohol to a guest to be held liable for the actions of that drinker. Unlike dram shop acts, which target commercial vendors such as bars and restaurants, a social host is an individual, and can be anyone who hosts a social gathering where alcohol is served, including private individuals, employers, and organizations. (14)

This article evaluates social host liability, paying special attention to case law and statutory authority that specifically targets social hosts who furnish alcohol to individuals who are between the ages of eighteen and of twenty-one. This article argues that social host liability is not the proper way to address the problems associated with underage drinking, as it simply shifts blame without addressing underlying problems that lead to irresponsible drinking behaviors. In addition, this article provides alternative, more effective, strategies to combat irresponsible drinking behavior among college-age individuals.

I. Common Law Social Host Liability

Social host liability occurs in three forms. (15) First, courts have extended the application of dram shop acts to social hosts. (16) While dram shop acts, as explained above, impose liability on commercial ventures for the intoxication of their patrons, in some jurisdictions plaintiffs have successfully argued that dram shop acts not only create a cause of action against a bar owner but a social host as well. …

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