Holiday & Christmas Parties – Does social host criminal and civil liability only apply to restaurants and bars?
The Holidays are officially here and many will host parties at their homes and places of business. While the annual tradition has obviously decreased these past couple of years, many families and companies are moving forward again with the tradition for business and personal reasons. For many holiday parties are excellent ways to build and maintain relationships
Dram Shop Liability & Holiday Party
While many may have heard or read something about the legal concept known as Dram Shop liability, most believe it is reserved for restaurants, bars or beverage retailers. In most cases, Dram Shop lawsuits occur after a serious car accident or some other incident where injuries are sustained.
A successful dram shop claim requires that the plaintiff (injured party) establish:
(1) a minor or visibly intoxicated adult was served alcohol by the defendant (the person who is being sued) in violation of the law; and
(2) the defendant’s violation caused the plaintiff’s injuries or damages.
In additional to actual or compensatory damages (medical bills, pain, suffering, loss of consortium etc.), restaurants, bars or beverage retailers are subject to punitive damages (a financial award against the liable party intended to punish it for wrongdoing.)
If you or your company plans on hosting an event at any local establishment such as a bar or restaurant, you should ensure that this business maintains an insurance policy which covers events these events.
Social Host Liability – Holiday Parties – Civil Liability
An extension of the Dram Shop Liability is Social Host Liability. In Pennsylvania, adults who serve alcohol at private functions are “social hosts.” If the host serves alcohol to a minor and the minor is injured or the minor injures someone else because of that intoxication, the social host may be liable to pay money damages to the injured person.
It is very important to understand Social Host Liability only applies to adults who serve alcohol to minors in Pennsylvania. Adults are responsible for the consequences of their own drinking at these functions. See Congini v. Porterville Valve Co., 470 A.2d 515 (Pa. 1983).
New Jersey, however, unlike Pennsylvania, does not limit lawsuits to social occasions involving minors and a social host is responsible for the actions of an adult who leaves an event intoxicated. Dower v. Gamba, 647A.2d 1364 (N.J. Super. A.D. 1994) (cert denied 658 A.2d 299 (N.J. 1995).
Criminal Liability – Pennsylvania vs. New Jersey
Social hosts who don’t maintain safeguard during these events expose themselves civil liability, substantial financial damages but it is also a crime in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Again, civil and criminal liability only apply to social hosts in Pennsylvania when it involves minors at these parties. In New Jersey, civil and criminal liability applies to minors and adults. In Pennsylvania, a person who furnishes alcohol to a minor commits a third degree misdemeanor. A third degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.00. The mandatory minimum fine is $1,000.00. In addition to these penalties, a criminal record could negatively impact employment and other professional opportunities. In New Jersey, this crime is a Disorderly Persons offense with a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and $1,000.00 fine.
How to host a safe holiday or Christmas Party
The easy answer on how to avoid civil and criminal liability is not to have one but that really isn’t a good response to question from a client. If, however, someone wants to host such an event, we recommend implementing the appropriate safeguards. The prohibition of alcohol for minors is clear but even further, secure all over the counter/prescription medications and firearms. You should also avoid sending e-mail or Facebook invites as these can be easily forwarded and you can lose control of potential invitees. We also recommend a strict policy of no re-entry into your home or other venue after leaving. Finally, we recommend speaking with your insurance agent regarding your homeowners’ policy, and specifically its limitations. These recommendations extend to any social event.
If you would like more information about this issue or you or your loved one is the victim of accident, contact our office today. We will explain the law, your options, and provide you with our professional legal opinion. There is never a charge for an initial consultation. You may or may not have a legal claim but you will leave our office with peace of mind and a firm understanding of your rights.
Drunk Driving & Holiday Parties – What to keep in mind
General Impairment DUI
If a person is charged with General Impairment DUI, the prosecution does not need to prove a specific BAC level but only that the person was incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle on the road in Pennsylvania (Section 3802(a)(1))
To meet its burden of proof the prosecution may attempt to introduce both direct and circumstantial evidence which can include, but is not limited to, the individual’s actions and behaviors, including the manner of driving, the ability to pass a field sobriety test, the person’s demeanor, his or her physical appearance, and other physical signs of intoxication. It is important to keep in mind that the prosecution is not required to prove the person actually consumed alcohol but only that he was incapable of safe driving due to some impairment, which can include the consumption of alcohol and/or drugs (Section 3802(a)(2). In many DUI prosecutions a key piece of circumstantial evidence that the prosecution attempts to introduce is a vehicle accident involving personal injury or property damage. This is actually a separate DUI offense which subjects a person to more severe penalties than the basic impairment DUI under Section 3802(a). A person convicted under Section 3802(a) involving an accident is subject to a mandatory minimum license suspension (12 months) and 2 days in jail, whereas a General Impairment DUI, non-accident incident will not subject the person to a license suspension or any jail time.
Impairment at the Time of Accident
If a person is charged with an accident DUI under the general impairment statute, the prosecution must establish impairment at the time of the accident. Keep in mind that even if police come upon a person who is intoxicated after an accident, this is not proof beyond a reasonable that the person was driving while impaired at the time of the accident. The prosecution must establish a temporal connection between the accident and the person’s impairment. This can be difficult if the police did not actually observe the accident and the prosecution can’t call a witness to testify it. Frequently drunk drivers strike parked vehicles and owners call police based on the vehicle damage without actually seeing the accident which caused the damage.
Admitting to Alcohol Consumption and DUI
Even if a person admits to police that they had consumed alcohol earlier that day, it is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or had imbibed a sufficient quantity of alcohol to render the person incapable of safe driving. Even if the prosecution can establish the defendant had an odor of alcohol, appeared confused, and failed his field sobriety test, they must still relate back the person’s condition at the time when they came in contact with police to the time the person was driving. This can be very difficult if not impossible! This is frequently a situation where police arrive after the crash and there are no witnesses to testify as to how the crash occurred or the person’s condition following the accident.
When police arrive after an accident with the drunk driver already out of the vehicle it is almost impossible for the prosecution to convict the person of more serious DUI offenses under Section 3802(a)(2), 3802(b), and 3802(c). All these subsections of the DUI statute subject the person to a license suspension even if it’s the person’s first time offense. Without an eye witness the prosecution will be unable to establish the person had a specific BAC level (over .08) within 2 hours of driving.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Lawyers in PA & NJ
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For more on defending a DUI in Pennsylvania, I encourage you to read my book “Five Ways to Fight and Win Your DUI Case in Pennsylvania”.