Thinking back to your teenage years, most of you can probably remember those friends who always hosted the house parties. I’m not referring to the time your buddy threw a kegger while his parents, away on vacation, had no idea what was happening back home. I am talking about the “Party House.” Loud music. Snack food. Unlimited alcohol. Parents at the Party House typically fell into one of two categories: either they supplied the alcohol directly, hoping to be viewed as the “cool parents,” or they justified it by saying “if my child is going to be drinking, I’d feel more comfortable if it was under my roof.”
Well, these Party House parents don’t look so cool anymore, after the Maryland Court of Appeals on Tuesday unanimously ruled that adults who “knowingly and willfully” host underage drinking parties can be held civilly liable for damages caused by intoxicated attendees. That’s right- if a parent or other adult hosts a party where he or she knows that alcohol is being served to people under 21, that adult can be held liable if one of those drunk teenagers attempts to drive home and injures or kills somebody on the way. This is a landmark case for the Maryland courts, which had not previously extended civil liability to adults who provided alcohol to minors who subsequently injured – or even killed – others.
The court’s shift on civil liability is actually rooted in a recent change in the criminal law. During this past last legislative session, Maryland lawmakers overwhelmingly approved “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” which imposed a maximum one-year jail sentence for adults who provide alcohol to persons under 21, who then injure or kill themselves or others. The previous penalty was a maximum $5,000 fine. Governor Larry Hogan signed the bill into law on May 19, 2016 and it goes into effect on October 1, 2016. While the statute did not explicitly address the question of civil liability, the Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling makes clear its view that the Legislature implicitly approved a civil cause of action. Judge Sally D. Adkins, writing for the court, noted that this civil liability for social hosts is limited to the case of adults who provide alcohol to individuals under 21, as “children under 21 are often less able to make responsible decisions regarding the consumption of alcohol and, as a result, are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a social, peer-pressured setting.”
The ruling revives two lawsuits filed by victims of drunk-driving accidents against hosts of underage drinking parties. Nancy Dankos filed suit against Linda Stapf, after her teenage son Steven Dankos was killed in a drunk-driving accident following a party at Stapf’s home, which both Steven and his intoxicated driver attended. Dankos alleges that Stapf not only bought alcohol for the underage party-goers, but refused to act when told that some of the patrons were too drunk to drive home. Steven was riding in the bed of his friend’s pickup truck when it crashed, and he was thrown from the truck and killed.
In the other case, Manal Kariakos filed suit against Brandon Phillips, alleging that Phillips had hosted a party where he served vodka shots to teenager Shetmiyah Robinson, who subsequently drove home and struck Kariakos, who was walking her dog. Kariakos was thrown 70 feet in the air by Robinson’s vehicle, and she suffered fractured vertebrae and a lacerated kidney.
Thinking back to the Party Houses of my childhood, I realize that I now have friends and colleagues that are faced with the decision of how to deal with teenage drinking. Some may feel the urge to earn the acceptance or approval of their child’s friends, to be considered the “cool parents.” Others may simply feel more at ease knowing that their child is drinking at home, and not out at somebody else’s house. While I can not tell anybody how to raise their own children, I can tell you that the cost of hosting a party at the Party House just got a hell of a lot more expensive.