Be forewarned: If you permit an underage driver to drink alcohol in your home, you may be subject to civil liability.
On July 5th, the highest court in Maryland ruled that adults can be liable for the harm suffered or caused by persons under 21 whom they knowingly permit to drink on their property. Maryland does not typically hold “social hosts” liable for injuries caused by their intoxicated guests or customers. However, the Maryland Court of Appeals stated an exception to that rule based on a criminal law that prohibits adults from “allowing” minors to consume alcohol in or around their homes. An adult who violates that statute, even if not convicted, can be found civilly liable for the resulting foreseeable injuries.
The two cases addressed by the Court of Appeals demonstrate the potential breadth of this ruling. In the first, a mother was found liable to the family of a deceased minor whom she knew to be drinking at her home. After becoming intoxicated, the minor chose to ride home in the bed of another party-goer’s pickup truck and was then killed when the truck crashed. The driver was over 21 and settled out of court. The Court of Appeals determined that the mother’s complicity in the minor’s drinking made her liable for his reckless decision to ride in the back of a truck. Even though the minor did not drive himself, the Court relied on the mother’s knowledge that others at the party planned to drive home and that the minor’s intoxication would make it foreseeable that he would accept a ride from them.
The Court then considered the case of a pedestrian who was struck by a minor who had been drinking heavily at the home of an adult friend before driving home. The friend was made liable for the pedestrian’s injuries based on his knowing provision of alcohol to a minor who was likely to drive while intoxicated.
Undoubtedly, this ruling sounds an alarm for adults who might have minors drinking in their homes. In discussing both cases, the Court stressed that minors are not fully equipped to handle the effects of alcohol, and that Maryland law places a burden on adults who knowingly let them drink. The Court did not address how adults should handle a situation where they find that minors are becoming intoxicated on their property. Simply preventing people from driving after drinking might not be enough, as the Court could potentially find that a minor took other reckless activities as a result of their drinking without even leaving the adult’s property. However, if the adults in these cases had not knowingly allowed the minors to continue drinking, or start drinking, they might have complied with the criminal statute and avoided civil liability as well.
The best advice: do not allow any underage drinking on or around your property. The danger to the drinkers and to innocent drivers and pedestrians – as well as to your own liability – are all serious risks that you can avoid.
If you have any questions pertaining to this issue, please feel free to contact Hayes for more information.