Hosting a Super Bowl party for your friends and family can be a stressful time: What will you serve? Where will everyone sit? Is your television big enough? One of the last things you want to worry about is what happens if Uncle Stan drinks too much and then gets behind the wheel of a car. Nevertheless, you should watch Uncle Stan’s alcohol consumption not only because of your concern for his safety and that of other drivers, but also because of your possible legal liability should Uncle Stan cause an accident.As a host, be aware of your state’s dram-shop or social host liability laws. These laws identify situations in which a third party can be held liable for the actions of an intoxicated person. Such laws are meant to deter social hosts from over-serving drivers, and to find an additional source of money to help cover damages and injuries caused by drunk drivers. For example, under a traditional dram-shop law, if Uncle Stan gets drunk at Bar X and leaves and drives his car into a church van, injuring three van passengers, the passengers may be able to sue Bar X.
These laws vary broadly by state. However, they generally fall into two categories: laws that are directed only at commercial sellers of alcohol such as Bar X (usually called dram-shop laws), and laws that allow the injured party to sue private individuals who do not sell alcohol but who do serve it or make it available (usually called social host liability laws). State dram shop laws differ on whether a plaintiff must show that the bartender knew the customer he or she was serving was drunk and on whether the bartender must have known the customer was going to get behind the wheel. Social host liability laws vary even more. Some states don’t have any such laws at all, while others have strict ones. In some states, these laws focus on underage drinking and only hold a social host responsible if the accident is caused by an individual under the legal drinking age (and in some states, there is a requirement that you are responsible for determining whether Uncle Stan is at least 21 years old before you serve him).
Other states extend social host liability to corporate parties. This could be a critical concern for you if you run a small business. Because these laws vary so much and could easily result in extensive financial liability for you or your business, make sure you fully understand your obligations and responsibilities before hosting that “open bar” party. If you do plan to host a party and serve alcohol, regardless of where you live, there are a few steps you can take in order to avoid legal liability (and, even more importantly, to make sure that your guests get home safely!). Keep taxi information, especially phone numbers, in a public place. Identify one or two designated drivers who will be available at the end of the evening. And eat! Provide plenty of food and nonalcoholic drinks and make them a central part of any get-together.