Mountain Law: Court rules social hosts not liable for injury caused by underage guest
The Colorado Supreme Court just announced a notable decision concerning underage drinking. The case was Przekurat v. Torres. At issue was the question of whether a social host can be liable for damage or injury caused by an underage guest who drinks alcohol.
One night in June 2011, a group of male co-tenants threw a party at a house they were renting in Boulder to celebrate one’s birthday and another’s college graduation. They invited a number of people, and information about the party was posted on social media. There ended up being a range of 20 to 120 guests at the party at various times throughout the evening. Not all of the guests had specifically been invited by the co-tenants. Some guests may have brought their own alcohol, but the hosts provided alcohol as well. The co-tenants later became the defendants in the case.
The party guests included a trio of males who went to the party together. One of them had heard about the party from a friend of one of the co-tenants who had helped plan the party. Another of them was 20 years old and the others didn’t know him before that night and don’t remember much about him from the party. There was no evidence that any of the defendants knew he was underage.
The 20-year-old drank beer and hard alcohol at the party. Around 2 p.m., the trio left the party in a car owned by one of them and driven by the 20-year-old. At times they went more than 100 miles per hour before losing control of the car and rolling the car several times. The owner of the car, who was apparently not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle and suffered severe, life-altering injuries. His father then sued the defendants on behalf of his son, alleging that they knowingly provided a place for the underage driver to drink and that they should be liable under a statute known as the Dram Shop Act.
The heart of the case was the question of whether social hosts can be liable under the Dram Shop Act without evidence showing that they knew a person drinking at their house was underage. The plaintiff father argued that the defendant co-tenants should be liable because they provided alcohol without restriction and there were many underage drinkers at the party, so they had constructive knowledge that the eventual driver of the car was underage.
The Dram Shop Act provides the exclusive remedy by which a plaintiff injured by an intoxicated person can sue the provider of the alcohol. In other words, a person cannot be liable for providing alcohol in Colorado except as provided in the statute. Prior to 2005, a person could be liable for willfully and knowingly serving alcohol to an underage person. In 2005, the General Assembly amended the law by eliminating the requirement for willfulness and expanding liability to social hosts who not only knowingly serve underage drinkers, but also knowingly provide a place for underage drinking.
The court examined the wording of the statute here and concluded that it does not impose liability unless the social host knows that a person is under age even if the social host knowingly provides a place for underage drinking. The court declined to impose liability based on an argument that a requirement of “knowing” was satisfied when the social host “should have known” that a person was underage.
While the court acknowledged that underage drinking is a serious problem, it left it up to the General Assembly to expand the statute if needed. For now, the co-tenants will apparently face no liability for the incident that left one of their guests severely injured. When it comes to the age of drinkers at a party, ignorance appears to be some sort of bliss.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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