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May 2012

 

Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a minor host, who did not provide or serve alcohol to her guests, was not liable for injuries sustained by guests who consumed their own alcohol at a party and were subsequently involved in a motor vehicle accident after leaving.  Juliano v. Simpson, 461 Mass. 527 (2012).  In Juliano, Jessica Simpson, the minor host, invited several friends over to her home while her father was away.  Christopher Dunbar attended the party along with Rachel Juliano, both minors.  On the way to the party Dunbar purchased alcohol, which he brought into Simpson’s house and drank at the party.  Juliano drank from her own supply of alcohol that she also brought with her to the party.  While there were some alcoholic beverages belonging to Simpson’s father in the house, Jessica Simpson, the minor host, did not drink her father’s alcohol or offer it to her guests.  Later on, Dunbar and Juliano left the party in a car driven by Dunbar.  Their car struck a utility pole causing injury to both of them. 

 

The plaintiffs filed a law suit asserting claims against the minor host alleging that she was negligent for allowing Dunbar to possess and drink alcohol on property under her control.  The plaintiffs were requesting that the Court enlarge the scope of social host liability under common law by extending a duty of care to an underage host who did not supply alcohol to the underage guests, but provided a location where they were permitted to consume it.  The Court declined to enlarge the scope of social host liability under common law, and reaffirmed that liability attaches to a social host only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol.  The Court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against the minor host. 

 

In reaching its decision, the Court provided an overview of the history of social host liability.  Courts in Massachusetts first recognized common-law tort liability with respect to social hosts in 1986 in the case of McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152, 496 N.E.2d 141 (1986).  In subsequent decisions, the Supreme Judicial Court consistently has found a duty only where a host either serves alcohol to guests or somehow controls the supply of alcohol. Thus, the rule in Massachuestts continues to be that for social host liability to attach, a host must actually serve alcohol or make the host’s own alcohol available. 

 

In reaching its decision in Juliano, the Court cited to policy considerations and the practical difficulties of imposing upon a host the duty to monitor or prevent a guest from drinking a guest’s own supply of alcohol.

 

The concurring opinions indicate a willingness on the part of some of the justices to alter the long-standing rule if presented with the right case.  For example, Judge Bostford noted in her concurring opinion that the alcohol industry is highly regulated and that it was up to the Legislature to expand social host liability.  Judge Botsford also noted that “we should provide a message that if the Legislature does not act within a reasonable amount of time, when the appropriate case arises we are inclined to change our common-law rule governing social host liability.”  Additionally, while the majority opinion did not address age as a factor in determining liability, Judge Gants noted in a concurring opinion that he “would limit our holding to an underage host, and would wait until we are presented with a case where a social host who has reached legal drinking age knowingly allows underage guests to use his or her home to drink alcohol before we decide whether to extend our holding to all social hosts.”  The concurring opinions suggest that given the “right” case, certain justices may favor an extension of social host liability to those hosts who do not themselves provide alcohol or control the supply of alcohol in a social setting.


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