We may all agree that cousin Bob’s gravy is so good it’s a crime, but we also know it’s not the kind of crime you can get sent to jail for. What many holiday hosts don’t know, however, is that other types of criminal activity that your guests get up to actually can leave you with legal liability.
That’s right: in some cases, if one of your guests gets arrested after leaving your party, you could be held partially liable for their wrongdoing.
The x factor here is liquor liability. In many states, the things that happen at your home or after your guests have left can mean major legal (and financial) consequences if alcohol is involved. Here’s a look at four booze-related things that can go wrong and how you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe this holiday season.
4 Ways Liquor Liability Can Ruin the Holidays
In most states, businesses that sell alcohol can be held legally liable for booze-related mishaps. But in many, “social host” laws mean that party hosts can also face liability. (See a map of social host laws by state to learn the laws where you live.)
Specifically, social hosts may be held legally liable for…
- Serving minors. There’s a common misconception that it’s always legal to serve alcohol to minors at home. The truth is that liquor laws are regulated at the state level, and only 29 states permit serving minors in a residential setting (see the list at ProCon.org). And even if your state lets you serve your own kids, you can’t serve other people’s kids without parental consent. Illinois recently passed a law that charges violators with a misdemeanor and levies a fine of $500 or more. If the drinking causes serious injury, the charge jumps to a felony.
- Property damage and bodily harm caused by intoxicated guests. In the best of times, drunk family members do nothing worse than talk loudly and tell off-color jokes. In the worst of times, they might leave your house and end up in a fight somewhere. If the fight leads to injuries, broken windows, or other physical damages, you could be considered a responsible party – especially if the guest was underage. Depending on the incident, being “responsible” could range from being named in a lawsuit to being charged with a criminal offense.
- Drunk driving accidents guests get into. Picture this: you let your 19-year-old nephew have a beer or two with dinner. He leaves, still sober, and spends the rest of the night drinking with buddies. Unfortunately, while driving home in the wee hours, he hits and kills another driver. Obviously, this is a major tragedy. What’s not obvious is that the other driver’s family could sue anyone who served your nephew alcohol that night. If your state has joint and several liability laws, you could be on the hook for more than your share of the damages, particularly if you have the most assets of anyone involved. (Read more about joint and several liability in our Liquor Liability eBook.)
- Medical bills for booze-related injuries. Even if the other driver is only injured, you could be pegged for some or all of their bills.
Think you’re off the hook because your state doesn’t have social host laws? Not so fast. Even if you live in a state with no social host laws, you could be charged with civil or criminal wrongdoing for your role in incidents caused by intoxicated minors you served.
The Good News: There’s a Lot You Can Do to Stay Safe!
Okay. Take a deep breath. While the risks outlined above are very real, you do have some control over what happens at holiday get-togethers. To minimize your liquor liability risks, take these precautions:
- Keep alcohol in a non-central location (e.g., on a different level from the main festivities or on a chilly porch). When it’s more work to get a refill, people are less likely to overindulge.
- Keep water pitchers and glasses out so people won’t drink booze just because they’re thirsty.
- Assign a bartender for making mixed drinks and make sure that person isn’t over-pouring. The barkeep can also keep an eye on anyone who’s getting a little too tipsy.
- Make some fun mocktails available so people can have festive holiday drinks without becoming impaired.
- Be prepared to offer sofas and spare rooms. Letting folks crash at your place means they absolutely won’t be driving home drunk.
- Have plenty of food. This is easy for most holidays. Hors d’oeuvres, meals, desserts, snacks – make sure there’s always something around to nibble. Food slows the absorption of alcohol and so lessens its effects.
- Have a DD or cab fare handy. Driving someone home or paying for their cab might be annoying, but it’s well worth the trouble if it means preventing alcohol-related incidents.
- Be realistic. If you’re serving booze, people will drink. Some will drink too much. If that happens, do damage control early: keep their water glass full, keep offering food, and recruit other guests to make sure the drinker gets home safe.
Want more information about liquor liability and social host laws around the country? Download our free eBook, Liquor Liability Insurance? I’ll Drink to That: A Complete Guide to Serving and Hosting Responsibly.