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Underage Drinking: What’s the Harm?

Many, if not most, young adults drink alcohol before their twenty-first birthday. During the summer months underage drinking is even more prominent. High school graduations and backyard barbeques present numerous opportunities for teens to consume alcohol. Parents may differ when it comes to allowing their children to drink alcohol, but in today’s litigious society it is important to understand how underage drinking exposes a parent to legal consequences. Intoxicated teens may attempt to drive, make poor choices, or hurt someone. When injuries occur, litigation often follows. When underage drinking occurs at someone’s home, that homeowner may become the defendant in a lawsuit. Homeowners[1] face many legal risks when underage drinking occurs on their property. This article will discuss where liability comes from, and what homeowners need to know to protect themselves.

First, a homeowner must be aware of general or Common-Law Negligence. Anyone who owns property has a general duty maintain their property and keep it free of any known dangers. Some dangers that come to mind may be hanging branches, or a broken step.   Similarly, a homeowner can be legally responsible for supervising an intoxicated guest. [2] In other words a landowner may be held responsible for injuries caused by an intoxicated guest on the landowner’s property or in areas under the landowner’s control.[3] A landowner is responsible for any intoxicated guest “when he knows that he… has an opportunity to control the third parties’ conduct and is reasonably aware of the necessity of such control.”[4] This is a two prong standard. The first prong deals with the “where.” The relevant question is whether the homeowner has the authority to control what is occurring on there property. For instance, if a party occurs in the home, the homeowner is legally able to control the conduct of his guests. The second prong deals with what the homeowner should have noticed. A guest who is consuming an excessive amount of alcohol or slurring their words should put a homeowner on notice that this guest may represent a dangerous condition. [5]

Common-Law negligence claims have been largely usurped by the passage of the NY CPL General Obligations Law § 11-100. [6] When it comes to underage drinking, just because the party ended does not mean a homeowner’s exposure to liability has also ended. Under General Obligations Law § 11-100, a person may be held responsible for any injuries caused by an intoxicated minor if that person knowingly provided alcohol to the minor. For example, a parent decides to host a party for their high school graduate. That parent decides that they are also going to provide a keg of beer for the party. A number of eighteen-year-olds attend the party and drink the beer. All of these guests are underage and have now become intoxicated. The parent could be held liable for the actions of all of these guests because they knowingly provided alcohol to minors and they knowingly caused the intoxication. If any of those intoxicated party guests attempt to drive home, the parents could be liable for an accident.

In the graduation party example, the parents allowed the underage drinking, but that is not the only situation that a homeowner must worry about. It is important to know what your child and your child’s friends are doing when you are not home because General Obligations Law § 11-100 applies to minors as well. Most homeowners maintain a homeowner’s insurance policy and possibly an umbrella policy. These insurance policies often cover all residents of a home including the children. If your child is sued, your insurance policy may be paying the judgment. This can have significant financial repercussions. There may be a large deductable, premiums may be increased, or the policy may be terminated by the carrier. These are significant consequences and have lasting effects on your family.

Strassner v. Saleem[7] provides a demonstration of the difference between a cause of action based upon negligence and a cause of action under General Obligations Law § 11-100. In Strassner a twenty-year-old boy was struck by a car and injured. He had been drinking alcohol at his friend’s house while attending a twenty-first birthday, but wandered off the property and onto a public highway. Strassner filed a lawsuit against the driver who hit him. The driver of the vehicle cross-claimed against the parents seeking contribution for the accident claiming that the parents violated General Obligations Law § 11-100 and were negligent. The court found that the parents were not negligent because Stassner had left their property and there was no duty to supervise intoxicated guests once they leave the areas under your control. However, the court agreed that the parents were responsible for a portion of the judgment because of General Obligations Law § 11-100. Under a theory of negligence, the parents could not be liable because the injury did not take place on their property, but under General Obligations Law § 11-100 the parents could be liable because they knowingly provided alcohol to a minor and were thereby liable for the injuries caused by an intoxicated minor.

The case, Rust v. Reyer, is an example of General Obligations Law § 11-100 being applied in another situation. A sixteen-year-old girl, Reyer, hosted a party while her parents were on vacation. Before the party, a group of boys approached her and asked if they could bring beer to the party. She agreed and allowed the beer to be stored in her garage. On the night of the party, the police were dispatched to the house to disperse the party. While the guests were leaving, an intoxicated boy punched another guest in the face causing severe injuries. As a result, a lawsuit was filed against Reyer and her parents. Ultimately Reyer’s parents were dismissed because they had no knowledge of the party. However, the suit was allowed to continue against Reyer because, as the court described, she “played an indispensible role in the scheme to make alcohol available to the underage party guests.” Reyer did not buy, provide, or serve the alcohol directly, but General Obligations Law § 11-100 still applied. Reyer allowed the beer to be served while she hosted the party. She was held responsible by the Court.

Some New York Counties have gone even further than expanding civil liability, and passed ordinances which impose criminal consequences on the social hosts who allow underage drinking. Upstate New York, Nassau, Duchess, and Suffolk Counties have all passed similar Social Host laws which impose criminal penalties on anyone over the age of eighteen who allows underage drinking to occur at their residence. The penalties escalate for repeat offenders, beginning at a small fine of $250 and increasing up to $1000 with a possibility of serving up to one year in jail. Homeowners should also be aware that many homeowner policies will not cover damages stemming from the commission of a crime. In jurisdictions where social host laws are in place, an insurance company may refuse any claims that stem from underage drinking on your property.

What you need to know.

  • The legal drinking age in New York is 21 years-old. Giving alcohol to anyone under the age of 21 is illegal.
  • Serving alcohol on your property imposes a duty to supervise your intoxicated guests. You are responsible for a drunk guest’s actions on your property.
  • Serving alcohol to a minor exposes a person to liability for any damages that relate to that minor’s intoxication. Examples include: Drunk driving accidents, vandalism, personal injuries.
  • If your child hosts a party where underage drinking occurs, they could be liable for any damages. This can implicate a parent’s insurance policy whether the parent knew about the party or not.
  • Allowing underage drinking in your home may expose you to criminal charges and fines regardless of who provided the alcohol or whether someone was hurt.

The legislatures and the courts have been cracking down on underage drinking for decades. It is important to know how that affects you as a homeowner. Underage drinking sometimes results in tragedies and lawsuits. You don’t want to be the defendant and you don’t want your assets in jeopardy. It is also important to talk to your children about underage drinking. Discuss how their choices can affect their future, or your financial stability.

[1] The term “homeowner” or “landowner” will be used throughout this article, but ownership is not a prerequisite to any of the forms of liability discussed. Someone who rents shares the similar, if not the same, responsibilities as a property owner when it comes to underage drinking.

[2] D’Amico v. Christie, 71 N.Y.2d 76, 85 (N.Y. 1987).

[3] Id.

[4] Comeau v. Lucas, 90 A.D.2d 674 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dept. 1982)

[5] This article does not provide an exhaustive list of the forms of liability associated with alcohol. The primary focus on how alcohol consumption by underage individuals creates additional forms of liability. Serving alcohol may expose homeowners to liability in a variety of ways regardless of the age of the consumer. For instance, over serving a guest may carry its own complications.

[6] NY CPL Gen. Oblig. Law § 11-100.

[7] Strassner v. Saleem, 156 N.Y.S.2d 559 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Monroe Cnty. 1993).

By: Eileen H. Libutti, Esq. and Zachary Benoit, Intern NYC


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