In many states, social hosts can be held liable for serving alcohol to people who ultimately injure or kill others due to their intoxication. Pennsylvania’s law on this issue, enshrined in its “Dram Shop Act,” is more complicated.
Under the state’s civil alcohol laws, only establishments licensed to serve alcohol, like most bars and many restaurants, are responsible for the actions of patrons who go on to hurt other people. Even in those cases, liability is restricted. Injured parties may be able to secure compensation, but only if they can prove that the licensed establishment continued serving alcohol to a “visibly-intoxicated” person.
Social hosts, on the other hand, can only be held accountable for injuries caused by people under the age of 21, Pennsylvania’s legal drinking age. To date, the state’s courts have been unwilling to pass liability on to social hosts who serve alcohol to people over 21, even when they were visibly intoxicated at the time.
The fundamental idea here is that grown adults should be held responsible for their own actions, including the amount they drink and the results of their intoxication. Minors, however, can’t be held to the same standard of personal accountability.
But Pennsylvania’s social host laws are even more limited than that. Social hosts can only be held accountable if they “knowingly furnish” alcohol to a minor. Let’s say you have a party one night, and your 19-year-old son is present. If he takes some of the alcohol that you’re serving, without your knowledge, and then gets into a car accident later on, it’s highly unlikely that you would be held accountable for any injuries, no matter how severe. If you handed him a beer, on the other hand, you could be on the hook for his actions.
Keeping alcohol around the house is fine, even if the bottles aren’t locked away. In 2001, a minor sued his friend’s parents after getting drunk at their house and then crashing his car. The minor was injured in the crash and his brother was killed. In his case, the boy argued that the parents had been negligent in leaving alcohol easily accessible. He pointed to the fact that they knew underage minors would congregate in the home, and that they looked on some of these minors with “distrust,” as further evidence of their negligence.
The court didn’t buy those arguments, despite the tragic circumstances from which they arose, holding that social host liability couldn’t be imputed for the “perfectly mundane event of storing alcohol in the[…] home in an unlocked area.” The case, Winwood v. Bregman, 788 A.2d 983 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2001), set a precedent unlikely to be overturned.
Believe it or not, those social hosting laws are fairly stringent when compared to other states. In Alabama, Missouri and Florida, for example, social host laws only count for events that can be considered “underage drinking parties.” 18 states, including New York, Vermont and California, have no social hosting laws at all.
While the term “social host” is usually interpreted to include both private parties and employer-held functions, Pennsylvania’s strict dram shop laws (which make little distinction between parties over and under the legal drinking age) aren’t extended to cover work parties. It’s very unlikely that a company could be held liable for the injuries caused by an intoxicated employee, like damages sustained in an accident after a work party, even if the employee was continually served alcohol after getting drunk.
Employers can, however, be held accountable for the actions of employees while they are working. In the event that an employee injures someone “within the scope of employment,” their employer may be held accountable for the resulting damages.
Obviously, the idea of a “social host” doesn’t include bars, restaurants or package stores who are licensed to sell alcohol. Those establishments are covered by Pennsylvania’s more rigorous dram laws, and can be held liable for serving alcohol to visibly intoxicated patrons of any age.
Pennsylvania’s social host laws create significant risks for student organizations, universities and colleges. Fraternities, which often host events where numerous minors consume alcohol, can be held liable for the harm caused by those minors. This law may hold particular sway around State College, home to Penn State, one of the nation’s highest-ranking party schools.
Specific servers, though, may not be accountable. In 1994, a student at Clarion University filed suit against the host of one party he attended, after being struck by a car later in the night. The boy argued that his intoxication impaired his judgment, partially causing the crash, and that the people who served him alcohol should be held liable for his injuries. But those “people” were minors themselves, and the court held that minors don’t hold any duty to other minors where alcohol is concerned. That decision is unlikely to be overturned, and no court has tried since. Thus Pennsylvania’s social host liability law only applies to hosts over the age of 21 in practice.
Liability doesn’t necessarily spill over to parent organizations or universities, either. In fact, campuses probably can’t be held accountable for the actions of intoxicated students, unless a university employee was explicitly involved in planning the social event, purchasing alcohol for it or serving drinks at the party. That’s been true even in cases where Pennsylvania courts find that a university “should have known” that alcohol would be served to minors on its premises.
That’s extremely unlikely, and it would probably only increase their liquor liability under the law. Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board issues special occasion permits to organizations for fundraising events, but only to specific organizations, like hospitals and churches.
That’s one reason some hosts decide to hold their private events at licensed establishments, since any liability for serving a visibly-intoxicated guest would probably be conferred to the establishment, rather than falling on the host. Hiring a professional bartender could reduce a social host’s liability, too, since professionals are trained to recognize the signs of intoxication.