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Who’s liable if I cause an accident on the way home from a holiday party?

Question:  I am going to my company’s holiday party.  Who is liable if I were to cause an accident there or on the way home?  What if I had a passenger in my car?

The answer is not simple. Let’s take the easier part of the question first.  If you consumed alcohol to the point of being unfit to safely operate a vehicle, your passenger could certainly sue you for negligence. Your insurance carrier would argue comparative negligence against the passenger for choosing to accept a ride in your vehicle.

Pennsylvania Drunk Driving Laws

In Pennsylvania, unlike other states such as Maryland and New York (each of which are totally different), a person can be up to 50% at fault and still recover damages (at the rate of 50%).   In Maryland, if you are held even 1% at fault for contributing to an accident, you are not eligible to recover anything.  This is called contributory negligence and only four states in America still subscribe to it.
So, if your passenger were permanently injured, and had a case worth $250,000, an assessment of 50% comparative negligence against him by a judge or jury would result in a net recovery of $125,000.  If your third party bodily injury coverage limits were $100k per person, $300k per accident ($100/300k), which is common in the rural parts of the state where coverage is much cheaper, your carrier would still pay out your full $100,000 per person limit to your injured passenger.  You would then be personally responsible for paying the $25,000 balance.
Not all plaintiff’s attorneys would seek the $25,000 from you, they would probably prefer to seek it from your own insurance company for not defending you properly.  This involves an assignment of rights which is a topic for another day.

Follow the “DeNiro Rule” to Avoid a Holiday Party Accident

Needless to say, if you feel you are impaired you should never, ever get behind the wheel.   As the great Robert DeNiro said, “if you have any doubt, there is no doubt.” If you get behind the wheel anyway, perhaps because you think you can drive safely, the last thing you should do is take a passenger with you.
There is no reason to risk two lives. When under the influence, you would endanger the passenger’s life and could even be criminally charged with REAP and Risking a Catastrophe.  If there were children involved, meaning anyone under 18, a whole host of additional charges would apply.
Pennsylvania courts have held since about 1983 that if an adult chooses to drink to excess at a private function, the adult social host is not liable to his drunken adult guest.  One adult has no legal responsibility to monitor the drinking of another, outside of the tavern or liquor establishment setting. This is still Dram Shop law in Title 47 of Pennsylvania’s Consolidated statutes.
This is not to say one adult has no MORAL responsibility to monitor the drinking of another, especially where there is reason to believe your guest has a habit of drinking at holiday parties.

Rules on Responsibility

The Congini case makes this clear. Relieving one adult or a group of adults from tort liability to another adult for serving him alcohol even to excess in a private function. We’re not talking about a place with a liquor license here.  Put more simply, if you drink too much, the “devil didn’t make you do it.” You can’t blame anyone but yourself.  Two big caveats exist for this Rule of Non-liability to apply:
1) the alcohol service is adult to adult, not adult to minor;  2)  the service of alcohol is not made by a business with a liquor license regardless of what the business calls itself, if it is open to the public and has the liquor license.
So follow the DeNiro rule (from what movie?) and be safe not sorry.  Regret is one of the toughest emotions to live with.  And it is so easily preventable in this context. Get a ride home from someone or just staying put, if need be.
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