by Thomas Manzo, esq.
With proms, graduations and parties just weeks away for many teenagers, thoughts turn to milestones, celebrations, and happy times. The reality is that these occasions often involve underage drinking. Most parent-homeowners are aware of the high prevalence of underage drinking and its occurrence at the family homes of minors. In fact, many permit such gatherings comforted by a sense of control of the situation. A great risk not well understood by parent-homeowners is their exposure to civil liability when alcohol is served or made available on their property and the possibility of a subsequent lawsuit seeking monetary damages if a suit is brought against them for injuries resulting from the underage drinking.
While New Jersey statutory law N.J.S.A. 2C:33-17 makes it a disorderly persons offense for anyone, including parent-homeowners, to serve or make alcohol available to underage individuals, a parent-homeowner also can be held liable as a social host under the common law for alcohol-related injuries. A viable lawsuit may not only seek compensation from parent-homeowners for injuries to a third party caused by an intoxicated underage guest’s driving, but the intoxicated underage guest may even sue the homeowners for injuries caused to him or her while driving under the influence after consuming alcohol at their residence.
In addition to common law social host liability, parent-homeowners may be subject to claims for negligent supervision where a parent leaves a minor unsupervised under circumstances "likely to lead to social gatherings where alcohol is consumed by underage drinkers." Morella v. Machu, 235 N.J. Super. 604, 606 (App. Div. 1989). Whether on vacation, at a dinner and movie, or even at home, a homeowner’s failure to monitor or provide proper supervision arrangements of minors on the premises may result in the homeowner’s liability for drinking-related injuries caused to the minors and others so long as the alcohol use can be found foreseeable.
Depending on the circumstances of the underage drinking incident and the language of the homeowner’s insurance policy, the insurer may or may not defend the homeowner and provide coverage for social host and negligent supervision claims. Coverage, however, if not excluded by the policy, will be limited to the policy’s limits. Therefore, if the severity of the injuries is great, policy limits may not fully compensate the injured party, in which case the homeowner’s assets will be exposed.
Underage drinking carries additional economic risk beyond parent-homeowner host liability concerns. The penalties for a driving while intoxicated conviction, as provided for under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, include loss of driving privileges and significant fines. Such conviction also may result in increased insurance premiums or cancelled coverage for all motor vehicle operators covered under the policy. Lastly, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b), in the event of injury to the operator of a vehicle who is convicted or pleads guilty to driving while intoxicated, said operator shall have no cause of action for economic recovery for any injuries related to the loss.
Now is the time to speak with your children about underage drinking and its seriousness and consider your level of protection and exposure. If you have been injured as a result of an alcohol-related incident or have any questions regarding injuries or your insurance policies, including homeowners, automobile or other types, contact Szaferman Lakind. We have the expertise to address your concerns.
Thomas Manzo is an Associate in the Personal Injury Department of Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, P.C., in Lawrenceville, NJ. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.szaferman.com or call 609-275-0400.