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Questions About Homeowner Liability at Events

I will be hosting an event. Who are the responsible parties regarding drinking and driving? What if someone gets into an accident after the party? If the party is at a restaurant and bar, is my liability the same? Who are the responsible parties now?

Unfortunately, there are a number of potential pitfalls and risks for the adult party host.

First, an adult cannot serve alcohol to a minor or negligently allow the minor to drink alcohol on the premises. Such an action would be, at minimum,  “Corruption of Minors” (18 Pa.C.S. Sec. 6301(a)(1).  It could also constitute other crimes such as Endangering the Welfare of Children (sec. 4304(a)) and Furnishing Liquor to Minors (sec. 6310.1).

The best policy would be to announce and email all invited guests that “no minors are allowed on the premises under any circumstances.  Guests who bring minors will be asked to leave.”  This proves you prohibited the attendance of minors at the event.  If a minor were to sneak in, a strong argument could be made that you are not liable for the harm. Not only did you lack knowledge and intent as to the minor’s presence but also, you specifically prohibited minors from attending.

Secondly, is an adult host liable for serving too much alcohol to an adult guest in the host’s home?  The answer generally is “No.”  The law reasons that an adult knows not to consume too much alcohol.  One adult, in a non business setting like a bar or restaurant, should not have to police the drinking practices of an adult guest.  One adult is not expected to be superior in his knowledge of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

Legally speaking, the private social host does not owe a duty to monitor the alcohol consumption of his invited adult guests of normal mental capacity.  Serving alcohol or allowing a person under 21 to drink is a different act in the eyes of the law than serving a fellow adult. Adults can make their own decisions about the consumption of alcohol.

Thirdly, if the party is at a restaurant or bar, a hired bartender and the employer, if holding a liquor license, can be held liable for serving alcohol to “visibly intoxicated” patrons of any age.  A private social host in his home is held to a far lesser duty of care than a licensed commercial establishment.  The use of a commercial space is not the difference.  Rather, the use of the liquor license is the difference.

There is a major difference in liability exposure in the fact that the party providing or serving the alcohol has a liquor license or, arguably, is using the restaurant or bar location as a mean of furnishing alcohol to invited guests.  An adult in the privacy of his home is not in the business of selling alcohol to his guests. He has no liquor license.

A business licensed to sell alcohol is what is known to us as a bar or restaurant. In addition, it is known under the law as a dram shop, which means a place where alcoholic beverages are sold.

Theoretically, if you rented a fire hall, and there was no restaurant or bar signs on it, or such a name posted on the door of the fire hall, it would be akin to a private venue, like your home.  If you served the alcohol, then you are still a private person, not a liquor licensee. However, once your party is held in a liquor licensee’s place of business, then your party is covered by the dram shop law.  The licensee’s establishment is being used as a place to buy and consume alcohol.  The liquor licensee can then be held liable to visibly intoxicated guests or their victims out on the road.

If a sign using the liquor licensee’s name is put on a barn, it is possible that the party in the barn would be viewed by the courts exactly the same as if it took place in the bar or restaurant. That’s assuming someone from the bar was involved in providing, and/or serving, the alcohol to your guests.  Even the use of the bar’s sign alone may make the bar liable under PA dram shop law.  You as the host would still be “using their license.” This could well make the liquor licensee liable to visibly intoxicated guests.    You would still generally not be liable to a victim under the bar/restaurant scenario, unless you knew or should have known that this bar had a history of negligently serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated people.

Pennsylvania Dram Shop Law

For your reference, PA dram shop law says:

Section 493(1) of the Liquor Code mandates that it is “unlawful . . . for any licensee or the board, or any employee, servant or agent of such licensee, or the board, or any other person, to sell, furnish or give any liquor . . . or to permit any liquor . . . to be sold, furnished or given, to any person visibly intoxicated…” 47 P.S. § 4-493(1) (emphasis added). The use of the language “any person visibly intoxicated” clearly manifests the Legislature’s intention to prohibit the furnishing of alcoholic beverages to all visibly intoxicated persons, without regard to whether those persons are adults or minors. See Klein v. Raysinger, 504 Pa. 141, 470 A.2d 507 (1983) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting). See also Manning v. Andy, 454 Pa. 237, 310 A.2d 75 (1973).

You may be hosting a party where underage persons are invited but there is no intent to serve them alcohol.  This is not illegal.  However, you would have to be vigilant to avoid general negligence in not sufficiently supervising the teenagers.

What Can You Do?

A paid bartender at your house would be a wise precaution.  He or she would monitor the alcohol and then ask for identification.  With no “third party” in charge of the alcohol, there is a risk to the adult host of the party.  Teenagers do not know moderation to the same degree as adults, and we know that as adults.  Therefore, alcohol access must be monitored if underage guests are invited to the house.

This area of law implicates both civil and criminal risks.  Let us guide you.

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