When you’re hosting a party, the last thing on your mind is a potential injury. However, social host liability is a legal concept that many states in the U.S. follow. You could be held liable in certain situations where a guest becomes overly intoxicated and causes harm to another party. Similar to how your local bartender can be held accountable if a customer leaves their establishment having been overserved and gets into an accident, hosting a party can get you into hot water if you live in a state with a Social Host law.
What Is the Difference Between Social Host Liability Laws and Dram Shop Laws?
Most states have dram shop laws, but not all have social host liability laws. Social Host Liability laws are similar to dram shop laws, which hold bars and alcohol retailers liable for injuries or deaths due to the actions of severely intoxicated patrons. Both of these laws offer the injured party, like the victim of a drunk driver, a means to sue the party who served the alcohol.
The primary difference is that social host liability laws have been enacted to hold party hosts liable for serving alcohol to minors. Many social host liability laws are enforced when it comes to intentionally or unintentionally providing alcohol to minors.
Unlike dram shop laws, which hold businesses liable for over-serving their patrons, social host law allows for the liability to extend to a gathering at a private residence. Both types of laws aim to reduce alcohol-related injuries and give establishments and individuals that serve alcohol an incentive to do so responsibly and verify that clients are of legal age.
Adult Responsibility and Duty of Care
A good host is responsible, and following some general rules when serving alcohol can help you avoid a lawsuit. First and foremost, adults have a duty to refrain from negligently or intentionally supplying alcohol to minors. This means that even if you didn’t serve the alcohol directly to a minor, if a minor got drunk at your party, you could be held liable through negligence. It is also the host’s responsibility to look out for signs of guest intoxication and to serve accordingly. If a guest appears to be overserved, it’s the host’s duty to ensure they won’t be operating a motor vehicle.
Social Host Liability Laws by State
Laws imposing liability on social hosts for alcohol-related injuries and deaths vary across states, while a few states have passed statutes that explicitly give immunity to social hosts. Dram shop laws also differ in terms of the extent a person can be deemed liable. For example, in some states, the social host liability law requires that the host act intentionally or with knowledge of the situation before they can be held liable. Before you host a Super Bowl party or a quiet wine night with friends, you must know your local liability regulations before you risk yourself or your guests.
States With Dram Shop Laws
In the United States, forty-two states all have some dram shop liability laws. There are only seven states that don't actively enforce Dram Shop laws even when minors are served, including:
States With Social Host Liability Laws
Thirty-two states across America have specific social host liability laws. Some states, like Washington and Missouri, apply common or statutory liability laws to hold party hosts criminally responsible for allowing underage or overserved guests to drink. States like North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, and West Virginia have no laws that address social host liability.
States with social host liability laws applicable to guests of all ages:
States With Social Host Liability Laws Applicable Only to Minors
Nine states have social host laws specific to minors:
How To Protect Yourself and Your Guests
Although you can’t account for every variable when hosting a party, promoting safe alcohol consumption and taking a few small steps can significantly reduce the potential for disaster. Hosts shouldn't underestimate the importance of safety-proofing the premises before a large social gathering. Whether you’re hosting the party at your house or deciding on another venue, make sure you understand your state laws to minimize your liquor liability risks.
Hire a Professional Bartender
A professional bartender is trained to spot signs of intoxication and limit guest consumption. Hiring a bartender can be an effective buffer and limit potential liability exposure for hosts who want to spend their event with their guests.
Expand Homeowners Insurance Coverage
Many homeowners insurance policies include some liquor liability coverage, with limits around $100K to $300K. A standard policy may not be enough coverage for your event. Although standard coverage may be sufficient for most situations, you may need additional coverage based on your personal circumstances, so speak with your insurance provider about extra coverage.
Designated Drivers and Ride Share
Depending on the size of your event and the number of guests in attendance, encouraging folks to carpool with a designated driver or providing a ride-share service is an effective way to avoid guests driving home after a few beverages. If you’re hosting a larger event, partnering with a ride-share service to offer a discounted rate for your guests allows folks to party hard without worrying about getting home.
Make it a Mocktail
In the last few years, the number of folks reducing their alcohol intake and embracing a “sober-curious” lifestyle has been on the rise. The sheer offerings of non-alcoholic beers and cocktails available have increased rapidly. To be accommodating to all your guests and provide a means to have fun without drinking, it’s a good idea to have multiple non-alcoholic drinks or mocktails. Also, making sure there’s lots of food and water can help counter the effects of alcohol. That way, your designated drivers or guests can indulge without missing out.
Switching to tea and coffee at the end of the night is an effective way to sober your guests up and signal that the party is winding down.
Legal Resources for Folks Injured at a Social Event
Injuries sustained at social gatherings can be serious business. If you’re injured at a social event, the first step is to seek medical attention immediately. Make sure you document any of your injuries with your healthcare provider to start a trail of documentation, which will be necessary when filing your personal injury claim. Since social host and dram shop laws differ across state lines, consulting with an experienced personal injury attorney can help you gather evidence and navigate the complex legal process. If you're struggling with food insecurity or mental health issues due to your injury, there are resources that can help.
Feeding America has a nationwide network of food banks and programs that help millions of people find food and groceries every year in their communities. To find your local food bank and learn about upcoming free food distributions, search by zip code or state here.
Injuries don’t just impact us physically but mentally, too. Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) if you’re struggling with mental health or substance issues and need someone to talk to. It’s a completely free and confidential service offered 24/7, 365 days a year, in English and Spanish for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. You can also find online resource and treatment centers using this anonymous search tool.
Veterans Crisis Line
The Veterans Crisis Line is available 24/7 for free, confidential support for veterans and their families. Dial 988 and press 1 to speak with a trained responder who will ask a few questions, or you can also chat or text at 838255.
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