Maryland High Court Introduces Civil Liability for Adults Who Allow Underage Drinking

By Derek M. Stikeleather

This week, the Maryland Court of Appeals, in Kiriakos v. Phillips, punched a large hole in a civil-law doctrine that has long protected adults who host parties where underage guests are allowed to drink alcohol. While it has long been illegal to sell or otherwise supply alcohol to minors, Maryland law has nonetheless rejected attempts to assign civil liability to those who provide alcohol to minors when the inebriated minors injure themselves or others. Although minors who consume alcohol frequently cause horrific – often fatal – accidents (or commit serious felonies), Maryland tort law has traditionally assigned liability for the injuries to those who consumed the alcohol while shielding the individuals or businesses that furnished the alcohol. But, recognizing the special vulnerability of minors to alcohol, the Court now holds that adults who “knowingly and willfully” allow underage guests to drink on their property and substantially contribute to the minor’s diminished ability to reason can be found liable for the harm that results from a drunken guest’s subsequent actions. Thus, adults who host underage drinking parties can now face civil liability for negligence when their drunken teenaged guests get behind the wheel (or even a passenger seat) and injure themselves or others.

Background: Alcohol in America

The use and regulation of alcohol in the United States has a long, contentious, and often-fascinating history. From the chronic binge drinking of the early Republic (see The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press. 1981. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.) to the evangelical and sometimes militant temperance movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (see, e.g., Fran Grace, Carry A. Nation: Retelling The Life (2001)), Americans’ feelings about alcohol tend to run hot.

Alcohol is soaked so deeply into the fabric of American legal history that the Constitution has two amendments (Ams. XVIII and XXI) dealing exclusively with alcohol. Consider for a moment that it took only one amendment (Am. I) to establish freedom of religion, free speech, free press, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Of course, Americans are not twice as concerned with their alcohol as they are with their freedom of religion, press, and assembly. Rather, the two alcohol-related amendments reflect American ambivalence towards alcohol; the Eighteenth Amendment enacted Prohibition in 1919 and the Twenty-First repealed it in 1933 – the only instance in American history where one federal constitutional amendment repealed another.

From a public-health perspective, alcohol remains a fixture – and a problem – in modern American society. U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages exceed $200 billion annually, and per capita beer consumption exceeds 20 gallons per year. http://www.statista.com/topics/1709/alcoholic-beverages/ With so much alcohol flowing, tragedy often follows closely behind. The CDC reports that, in 2014, “9,967 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (31%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.” http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html And of “the 1,070 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2014, 209 (19%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver” Id. The CDC has also recognized that alcohol plays a prominent role in sexual assaults against women. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm

From a legal perspective, alcohol has always been heavily regulated. But, when people under the influence of alcohol injure themselves or others, most states have been reluctant to impose civil liability on the people or businesses that supplied the alcohol. Instead, the drunken actor is typically viewed as the sole tortfeasor.

Alcohol and Maryland Law

Given the profound public-health implications of widespread alcohol use, alcohol is heavily regulated in Maryland (and in every other state). In addition to stringent licensing requirements for alcohol sales, various Maryland laws prohibit (1) selling alcohol to people under age 21, (2) operating a motor vehicle with a blood-alcohol content of 0.8 or more, (3) providing alcohol to underage non-family members (except for religious practices) and (4) serving an obviously intoxicated patron. Not surprisingly, many alcohol regulations are designed to restrict the availability of alcohol to minors.

Despite this close regulation, and until this week, Maryland courts had recognized for 65 years the “adage … that a person’s decision to drink is the sole cause of injuries arising from his intoxication.” Slip op. at 55 (citing State v. Hatfield, 197 Md. 249 (1951)). Not anymore.

Kiriakos and Expanded Maryland Tort Liability

Kiriakos breaches the firewall that Hatfield erected between individuals injured by underage drinkers and the Maryland adults who provide them alcohol and a place to use it. Many parents of teenagers, convinced that minors will use alcohol no matter what, ironically host underage drinking parties to provide what they consider a “safe” place for teens to be teens. With Kiriakos, the Court of Appeals leaves no doubt that hosting underage drinking parties was never safe for the underage guests and, in terms of civil liability, will no longer be safe for the adult hosts.

So what has changed? The Kiriakos Court based its rulings in two companion cases on a 1996 Maryland criminal law, CR 10-117(b), that obviously post-dates Hatfield by decades. It treats the law as a “substantial development” that reflects the General Assembly’s decision to do more to protect youths from alcohol. Slip op. at 21-22, 25. Under the law, “an adult may not knowingly and willfully allow an individual under the age of 21 years actually to possess or consume an alcoholic beverage at a residence, or within the curtilage of a residence that the adult owns or leases and in which the adult resides.” Id. The Court applied the Ordinance Rule, which finds a statutory violation is prima facie evidence of negligence when the statute is designed to protect a specific class of people, here “underage people exposed to alcohol,” and the injured person  is in that class. Slip op. at 12-20. In the first case, an inebriated minor, who rode in the back of a flatbed pick-up driven by another impaired partygoer and died when it crashed, was in the protected class. See id. The Court contrasted Kiriakos with its 2013 decision, Warr v. JMGM Group, LLC, 433 Md. 170, 198, which had found the Rule inapplicable where a tavern owner violated the ban on alcohol sales to visibly intoxicated persons because that statute was broadly designed to protect the people of Maryland and not a specific class. Slip op. at 13.

The watershed development in Kiriakos is its holding that the 1996 criminal statute overcomes the once-insurmountable proximate-cause barrier to finding liability for providing alcohol to others who cause harm. Under Hatfield, Maryland law had always treated the decision to drink alcohol as the proximate cause of all accidents caused by drunkenness. See id. at 21. The Court held that Section 10-117(b) changed that by recognizing, “based on convincing evidence, that children under 21 are often less able to make responsible decisions regarding the consumption of alcohol and, as a result, are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a peer-pressured setting.” Slip op. at 24.

Thus, “contributory negligence is not a defense in an action by a protected class member against a social host defendant.” Id. And the Court “refuse[s] to construe a minor’s decision to consume alcohol voluntarily as the proximate cause of his injuries.” Id. at 32. Thus, the minor fatally ejected from a flatbed truck had a viable claim against the adult who hosted the party where he drank alcohol; the claim does not stop with the driver of the vehicle.

Section 10-117(b) also creates potential liability to third parties injured by the minors that the host provided with alcohol. In the Kiriakos companion case, the plaintiff was injured while walking her dog when she was hit by a car driven by an inebriated minor leaving the adult defendant’s home. Id. at 6-7. Analogizing the second case to a negligent entrustment claim, the Court held that one “can maintain a limited social host cause of action … through common law tort principles, like negligent entrustment, based on the strong public policy evident in CR 10-117(b).” Slip op. at 44. Weighing the seven traditional factors that establish a duty in tort, the Court found a cognizable duty that the host had to the unknown dog-walker. Id. at 45-51.

Conclusion

Kiriakos breaks new ground in Maryland tort law by holding that “underage persons are not solely responsible for drinking alcohol on an adult’s property because they are not competent to handle the effects of this potentially dangerous substance.” Id. at 55. Due to the strong public policy against providing alcohol to minors, adults who host parties and condone underage drinking are now potentially liable for all the harm that flows from the terrible decisions that these impaired teenagers (or even 20-year-olds) may make.

Given the massive collateral damage that underage drinking causes, we should expect to see significantly more litigation against parents who knowingly open up their homes to underage drinking. Although not directly addressed by Kiriakos, the opinion is also likely to generate litigation from survivors of sexual assaults, wherever the drunken assailants are younger than 21 years old, against whatever person or institution (e.g., a college fraternity) provided the alcohol to the underage assailant. Although criminal conduct normally breaks a proximate causation chain, there is a compelling argument that Kiriakos’s rationale favors civil liability for hosts whose underage guests commit crimes after being provided with alcohol.

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