With the holiday season in full swing and seasonal soirees scheduled, insurance industry experts are warning anyone who is planning a private party about the risks involved in serving alcohol to guests, particularly in states such as New Hampshire.
All but two states—Florida and Nevada—have social host liability, or “dram shop” laws, under which licensees and employees of bars, restaurants and other establishments may be held civilly and sometimes criminally liable if an overserved guest winds up hurting someone in a drunken driving crash or other incident.
The laws vary widely between states, but they all offer an injured person some method of suing the person who served alcohol to whoever caused the injury, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). And in states such as New Hampshire, people who throw parties in their own homes may be on the hook in much the same manner as bartenders who provides too much cheer if one of their guests injures another person.
Dram shop laws—which derive their name from a legal term for a bar, tavern or other place where alcohol is served, using a traditional term for a small unit of liquid—were enacted to establish the liability of establishments that sell to visibly intoxicated people or minors, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“These laws can also apply to a host or hostess serving alcohol at a private party or to a company hosting an event such as a holiday party for its employees,” according to a 2009 NHTSA report. “Most of the laws require the injured person to provide evidence that if the alcohol had not been served or sold by the entity they are attempting to make a claim against, the accident would probably not have happened.”
Loretta Worters, vice president of III, said that means party hosts should be extremely careful about serving booze to their guests.
“While a social host is not liable for injuries sustained by the drunken guest (as they are also negligent), the host can be held liable for third parties, and may even be liable for passengers of the guest who have been injured in their car.”
New Hampshire’s stance toward social host liability was set by a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling in a case that centered on a minor who was provided alcohol at a party, drove off and was hurt in a vehicle crash. The driver sued, claiming that the hosts had given him too much to drink and knowingly allowed him to drive away from the party.
In its decision, the state’s high court held that an injured third party—and in extreme cases, the person who was served—may sue a host if the service of alcohol can be proven to have been reckless, which it defined as consciously disregarding “a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
The ruling set precedent in the Granite State, where common law had traditionally held that hosts were not liable.
According to a Connecticut legal analysis of legislation in surrounding states, New Hampshire’s dram shop law requires that the host or other person furnishing alcohol knows or can be reasonably expected to know that the person being served is either drunk or underage.
III officials say there are steps that party planners can take to limit risks for themselves and their guests, whether they’re having a few friends over for drinks or throwing a major bash:
–Read up on your state’s social host liability laws.
–Consider throwing the party somewhere other than your home, such as at a licensed restaurant or bar.
–Hire a professional bartender who is trained to recognize signs of inebriation and can cut intoxicated guests off.
–Encourage guests to pick a designated driver who will refrain from drinking so that he or she can drive other guests home.
–Limit your own alcohol intake so that you will be better able to judge your guests’ sobriety.
While social host liability laws address the risks associated with serving alcohol, safety officials say partygoers should not forget about the responsibility of those who consume alcohol not to get behind the wheel or engage in other unsafe behaviors.
Drunken driving killed nearly 11,000 people on U.S. roadways in 2009, according to NHTSA.
And beyond the very real danger of causing death or injury, drunken driving can also lead to fines, jail time, license suspension and other financial troubles for those who are found guilty.
And even after violators are legally permitted to operate a motor vehicle again, industry experts say it can be extremely difficult to find low down payment auto insurance and other types of affordable coverage with a criminal conviction for driving under the influence on your record.