The holidays are in full swing. We have stuffed ourselves silly with turkey, decorated the tree, and hung the stockings.
With this festive time typically comes holiday parties and social gatherings. Whether these parties are to shop for gifts, celebrate the season with friends, or thank clients for a wonderful year, social hosts need to be aware of the potential for liability for alcohol service to guests.
Most holiday parties have two central ingredients: food and booze… and lots of it. Whether it is a company throwing a party or a couple having a gathering at their home, service of alcohol by social hosts carries with it responsibilities and potential liability if an overserved guest is involved in an accident.
This article will cover North Carolina law for social hosts and ways you can protect yourself or your business to ensure everyone safely and responsibly celebrates the season at your celebration.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has recognized a cause of action for social host alcohol liability if the three following elements are present:
- Service of alcohol (wine, beer, liquor, etc.);
- When the host knew or should have known the guest was intoxicated; and
- When the host knew or should have known the guest would be driving shortly thereafter.
Here is how this plays out. You host a party at your home. A guest becomes intoxicated or is intoxicated upon arrival. The host continues to serve that guest alcohol when the host knew, or should have known, the guest was intoxicated. The guest leaves in an intoxicated state and is involved in an accident causing injuries or death to another. The injured party brings a claim against not just the drunk guest but also against the party host who provided the alcohol.
The key for these cases is what the host knew or should have known about the guest’s intoxicated state and likelihood of driving shortly thereafter. Testimony by witnesses as to what they saw and observed is often the critical evidence in these cases.
If the guest was noticeably and outwardly intoxicated, such that his faculties were severely impaired, then it is likely a host should have known that guest was intoxicated. This is not a .08 standard for drunk driving; this is intoxicated such that one’s faculties are materially impaired.
If the host knew or should have known that the guest was drinking heavily or under the influence of medication or other drugs, or that the guest arrived already impaired, that would also show that the host should have likely not served the individual for purposes of proving liability.
The injured party must also prove that the host knew, or should have known, the guest was going to be driving soon after consuming the alcohol.
I am certainly not suggesting that you not serve alcohol at your party. I am, however, suggesting you take steps to ensure alcohol service is done safely, and that you put steps in place to avoid being held responsible if a guest is involved in an alcohol related accident.
Those steps should include the following:
- Advise guests on the invitation that alcohol will be served and that they should designate a driver or use ride share services like Uber or Lyft;
- Consider hiring a bartender or server to monitor alcohol consumption instead of alcohol being a free-for-all;
- Make arrangements for a place where guests can leave their vehicles if they cannot drive home;
- Have numbers for taxi companies and/or offer your guests a rideshare (Uber, Lyft) if they appear to be under the influence;
- Carry adequate insurance and/or consider special event insurance if you plan to have a large social gathering;
- Never, ever, ever serve a minor or allow a minor easy access to alcohol.
At the end of the day, parties are meant to be times of celebration. No one wants that celebration to turn to tragedy. Sometimes, regardless of all possible precautions, incidents still occur. In those circumstances, an experienced dram shop attorney can help you understand your rights and responsibilities and defend your interests in court if necessary.
This does not constitute legal advice. Please seek counsel from a legal professional to assess your specific situation.
Deedee Gasch has over a decade of experience litigating catastrophic claims involving serious injury or death. While Deedee’s practice is primarily focused on the defense of premises liability, trucking and commercial vehicle accidents, and medical malpractice, she also has a wide range of civil litigation experience. She spent approximately half of her career representing injured plaintiffs before returning to her first love of civil litigation defense work. This experience on both sides of a case uniquely situates her in negotiations and at trial if settlement is not possible. Deedee is a third-generation Tar Heel and attorney, following in the footsteps of her grandfather, a North Carolina Resident Superior Court Judge (deceased), and her father, a career trial lawyer. She has dual degrees in Journalism and Political Science and earned her law degree cum laude from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida, where she attended on a prestigious merit based scholarship. She is licensed to practice law in both North Carolina and Florida.