Can a Host Be Liable for Serving Alcohol in California?
Michael Rubinstein, Esq.
A member of your shul hosts a simchah at his house, where alcohol is served. Someone consumes alcohol at the event, and later injures someone else while driving under the influence. Can the injured person sue the host?
My office recently received this question, and it illustrates a common scenario in our community. It turns out, in some situations, the host can be liable for furnishing alcohol to his guests, and in other situations he is immune. A bit of background is appropriate.
California’s Alcohol Liability Laws: Pre-1970s
For many years, California maintained a tradition of immunity for those who provided or sold alcohol to others. This tradition was known as the “common law” – a body of legal precedent dating back to thirteenth-century England. Under the common law, bars and establishments could not be held responsible when a patron became intoxicated and later caused injuries to others. These laws were known as “dram shop laws.” Dram shops were the name given to bars in England, and dram shop laws are still in existence in some form or another in many states.
During the 1970s, several Supreme Court cases in California deviated from the common law. These decisions imposed civil liability on bars for serving alcohol to patrons who later caused serious injuries to others. The rationale the Court used had to do with foreseeability. By providing alcohol to a patron, it was foreseeable that the patron would need to drive home, and by extension drive home drunk as a result of drinking at the bar. Therefore, the Court ruled, a subsequent collision was a foreseeable consequence of the bartender serving alcohol to the bar patron.
1978: Common Law Immunity Restored
California’s deviation from common law alcohol liability laws was short-lived. In 1978, the State Legislature amended the Civil Code. The Legislature overturned the California Supreme Court’s decisions, reinstating the immunity for serving alcohol that had been the law for centuries. The Legislature was very specific:
It is the intent of the Legislature to abrogate the holdings. . . and to reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person. (Civil Code 1714.)
This means that establishments that serve alcohol are immune from civil liability when a patron consumes alcohol and later injures someone else. The act of consuming the alcohol led to the third person’s injuries, not the bartender providing the alcohol to the patron.
The Civil Code contains exceptions to the above-mentioned law: When alcohol is sold to a minor, and when an adult provides alcohol to a minor at a residence.
Serving Alcohol to Minors
An establishment licensed to dispense alcohol is prohibited from serving alcohol to a minor. In fact, California law makes it a misdemeanor to do so. The Civil Code also makes it clear that if parents serve alcohol at their residence to minors under the age of 21, civil liability can be imposed for subsequent injuries:
Nothing (in the previous section) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age, in which case…the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.
What this means is that parents who serve or allow alcohol to be served in their homes to minors can be held liable for subsequent injuries caused by an intoxicated minor. In fact, if an adult serves alcohol to a minor and the minor thereafter injures himself, cases have held that the minor can also sue the adult who gave him the alcohol.
What about a host who serves alcohol to his guests who are above the age of 21? The Code states “no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages caused by that person…resulting from the consumption of those beverages.” This means that a host who provides alcohol to his guests who are 21 and over is immune from civil liability.
Alcohol at Shul
What about serving alcohol at a shul kiddush? According to our discussion, so long as the alcohol is served to an adult, both the baal hakiddush and the shul would be immune from civil liability. But if the alcohol is furnished to a minor at the shul, the answer would not be so clear. It’s not a residence, where serving alcohol to a minor can create parental or other adult liability. And an establishment licensed to sell alcohol could be liable for selling alcohol to a minor. But furnishing the alcohol at a shul to a minor who did not pay for it? While it’s a misdemeanor to do so, the civil consequences are unclear. We can all agree, though, that alcohol at shul must be properly supervised.
California provides immunity to social hosts and licensed establishments who serve or sell alcohol to their guests who are 21 and older. If a parent or other adult gives alcohol to a minor at his or her home, the parent or adult can be held liable for subsequent injuries. It is also a misdemeanor to provide alcohol to anyone under 21.
“The enormity of the damage, death, grief, and suffering caused by driving motor vehicles after the consumption of alcoholic beverages is so well known that it needs neither pleading nor proof.” This quote, from a frequently cited Court of Appeals case, says it all. Whether it’s Purim, Simchas Torah, a melaveh malkah, or any other simchah, we can all agree that alcohol must be consumed responsibly, both at home and at shul.