by Robert Rubinstein, Esq.
DISCLAIMER #1: I am a former Municipal Prosecutor.
DISCLAIMER #2: I am not Irish.
On St. Patrick’s Day many revelers, whatever their heritage, celebrate their "Irishness" by imbibing pints of green beer and such. On this holiday, as on other occasions, serving and being served too much can result in civil liability if someone is injured as a result.
Social Host Liability Law is generally a subset of the Dram Shop Law, which sets out the responsibilities and liabilities for bars, restaurants, and clubs that serve alcohol. A "social host" is anyone who hosts a social gathering, including individuals, employers and organizations. The social host doctrine involves situations where a person, employer or organization provides alcoholic beverages to another who in turn injures themselves or another person as a result of intoxication. When it comes to host liability, most of us understand the risk and heed the warning. But, even so, there have been many times when what started out as a party has resulted in tragic consequences. When it comes to host liability, here is what we must remember:
• New Jersey social host liability treats the serving of alcohol to people under the age of 21 differently than to people over the age of 21.
• Liability for the service of alcohol in a social setting (not a bar or restaurant) to individuals over 21 is governed by statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.6, et seq.). The statute states that if you provide alcohol to a social guest over 21 years of age while that person is "visibly intoxicated" you can potentially be responsible for injuries or damage that are caused by the "visibly intoxicated" person, specifically in a motor vehicle accident. The Statute is for the benefit of "innocent" third parties.
• Liability for service of alcohol in a social setting to individuals under the age of 21 is significantly different. While there is no statute that governs this situation, liability is based on common law principles of negligence. In this regard, the same rules concerning service to "visibly intoxicated" individuals presently applies. However, if alcohol is provided to an individual under the age of 21, liability extends to all situations where an innocent third party is injured (not specific to motor vehicle accidents), and includes liability for injuries sustained by the intoxicated minor. In addition to civil liability, it is a disorderly person offense in the State of New Jersey to serve or provide alcohol to any individual under the age of 21.
We must also be aware that the "service" of alcohol as described herein, does not necessarily mean that you actually have to hand the drink to the "visibly intoxicated" person. All that is necessary is that alcohol be "provided" at your house, home or party in order for liability to attach. For example, in situations where there is a keg of beer, or self-service bar set up in your home, or where someone may have "spiked the punch," you will have been deemed to "provide" the alcohol.
What does this mean if you are planning a St. Pat’s party at your house? It means you should be aware of who is drinking in your house and how much they are consuming. I also urge you to provide plenty of water and food for your guests. It is important for your guests’ sake, the safety of other people on the road, and your own financial liability, to take away anyone’s keys if you feel they have had enough to drink and to stop serving them alcohol right away. It’s always best to be safe rather than sorry, so designate your driver before imbibing at St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
Unfortunately, despite all our precautions, accidents do happen. If you are involved in an accident, in any way, stemming from the service of alcohol, please contact an attorney immediately to assist you with your rights.
Rob Rubinstein is principal of The Rubinstein Law Firm, LLC, located at 10 Rutgers Place in Trenton. He can be reached at 609-392-7600 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.