By Brittany Love and Andrew Cornelius
It’s that time of the year again when friends, coworkers, and families gather together to celebrate the seasons. Whether it’s an office costume party, a Thanksgiving dinner at your parents’, or a night of Christmas caroling with your neighbors, the spirit of the season often involves food, fun, and alcohol. Eggnog anyone?
But what happens when one of your guests has too much fun, gets behind the wheel, and is the cause of an alcohol-related injury?
Social Host Liability: What does it mean?
Did you know? In North Carolina, a private individual or corporation can be held financially responsible for damages caused by an impaired driver if that individual or an agent of the corporation served alcohol to a person, knew the person was intoxicated, or knew or should have known the intoxicated party was driving afterwards.
Unfortunately, it does happen—and this theory can be confusing without a legal background to interpret ALL the ins and outs. While it’s important to know what your role is in the situation, especially from a legal standpoint, it’s also important to remember not to panic!
This common law theory is a specific type of negligence known as “social host liability.” Under the theory, a party injured by an impaired driver is able to sue and recover damages from employers, family members, and friends who failed to use reasonable caution when serving alcohol. This theory can be applied regardless of the age of the impaired driver or the extent of the damages caused. It can be used by the passengers of the impaired driver or the actual owner of the vehicle driven by the impaired driver. The theory can even apply to someone that you did not invite to your gathering, but allowed to remain and consume alcohol. If you’re thinking ‘that could very well be one of my parties’; don’t worry, you’re not alone.
While not every situation involving an impaired driver involves social host liability, every host can put themselves at risk when serving alcohol to guests.
Let’s examine a situation you may encounter this holiday season. Karen works for XYZ Corporation as a supervisor of their Concord branch. Karen’s employees hit all of their sale goals well before the end of the month, and Karen decides to reward them with an after-hours celebration complete with food and alcohol (paid for by Acme). At 8:00 pm, Karen’s employee Henry and his partner, Sarah, arrive at the office for the festivities. Karen soon realizes that Henry is drinking heavily, so she confirms with Sarah that Sarah will be driving them home. Karen sees that Sarah is also drinking, but not at the same pace as Henry. Karen says goodbye to the couple around 11:00 pm. Although Karen can tell that Sarah is a bit “tipsy,” she thinks nothing of it because Henry is much worse. On the way home, Sarah is distracted by lights from a local business and fails to stop for a red light, clipping the back end of a driver’s truck (we’ll call this driver ‘Chris’) as he is cruising through the intersection. Chris sustains serious injuries in the accident and his vehicle is totaled.
Technically, under this theory of ‘social host liability’, while Chris can seek damages from Sarah for being the direct cause of the accident, Chris can also hold a strong case against Karen and Acme. Karen, as an agent of Acme and using alcohol purchased by Acme, continued to serve alcohol to Sarah when she knew or should have known that Sarah was intoxicated and knew that Sarah would be driving. Sarah’s driving may be the obvious cause of Chris’s injuries, but Karen and Acme’s negligence allowed Sarah to keep drinking and get behind the wheel after she was visibly impaired.
Is there a cap for damages in this circumstance?
There is no cap for damages under the theory of social host liability, exposing hosts to unlimited liability when their guests are drinking at a corporate retreat, a charity fundraiser, or even a large wedding. Recoverable damages in a social liability case can include:
- Hospitalization expenses
- Rehabilitation and physical therapy
- Physical and mental pain and suffering
- Partial, complete, and permanent disfigurement
- Physical impairment
- Loss of quality of life
- Lost wages and loss of earning capacity
- Property damages
What can I do to protect myself?
The theory of social host liability requires a host providing alcohol to use reasonable caution in serving and monitoring his or her guests. What does that mean? It means that, as a host, your best bet in protecting yourself is to be aware of your guests’ intoxication levels. Let’s be realistic though—it can be almost impossible to monitor every guest in a crowded and loud event. Offer Uber promo codes as part of your ‘Christmas bonus’ or make sure everyone attending the party has a designated driver so that your guests can enjoy the party without the stress of driving home. No matter how cautious you may be as a host, accidents can, and do, happen.
If you have additional questions or concerns as to whether your current situation falls into either of these categories, know that Hartsell & Williams, P.A. is committed to helping you know and understand the law, your rights and how to protect yourself. Tis the season for joy and fun, not worry and stress. Knowing an experienced and trustworthy firm is only a phone call away can help you enjoy, prepare for, and celebrate the holidays to their fullest extent.