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Massachusetts SJC Ruling Potentially Absolves Social Hosts of Liability for Alcohol-Related Injuries and Deaths

Earlier this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that teenagers in Massachusetts who host underage drinking parties, but don’t supply alcohol, cannot be held liable in a subsequent civil lawsuit for injuries sustained by a person at the gathering.

According to Justice Fernande Duffly, “We [were] asked to enlarge the scope of social host liability under our common law by extending a duty of care to an underage host who does not supply alcohol to underage guests, but provides a location where they are permitted to consume it…We decline[d] to do so, and reaffirm[ed] that liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol.”

This ruling stems from a suit filed by the estate of Rachel Juliano, a Massachusetts teenager who was tragically left with permanent brain injuries after a car accident. It was later determined that the driver of the vehicle, her boyfriend, was operating under the influence (OUI), after leaving a party at the home of another Massachusetts teenager, where he consumed alcohol.

The Juliano family sought to hold the then 19-year-old party host liable for the brain injuries sustained by her daughter. The family relied on the Massachusetts social host law, which criminalizes a host providing alcohol to underage drinkers. In this case, though, the host of the party did not provide the alcohol to the injured party’s boyfriend, who himself bought the alcohol and brought it to the party. As such, since the host of the party did not supply the alcohol to underage drinkers, she was not held liable for the traumatic brain injuries under the social host law.

The SJC rationalized that expanding the current social host law would create confusing laws for judges and juries to apply. Further, there is no consensus amongst states on the national stage regarding this issue. Justice Duffy wrote that “The plaintiffs make a compelling argument that underage drinking and driving is a persistent and widespread societal problem. The Legislature’s decision to deter and punish those who facilitate such conduct by the imposition of jail sentences and financial penalties, along with the stigma of a permanent criminal record, lends support to that argument…However, the public policy concerns raised in past social host cases remain relevant to our determination of the appropriate scope of common-law tort liability. We have not been given sufficient reason to significantly amend our tort law in the face of sound reasons for maintaining its current status.”

According to Boston criminal defense attorney Peter Bellotti, the ruling has far-reaching effects on the potential liability Massachusetts parents and other social hosts may face following alcohol-related injuries sustained and caused by underage partygoers. Attorney Bellotti stated that “essentially, the SJC is absolving Massachusetts residents of liability who host underage drinking events where they themselves do not supply the alcohol. Every parent of teenagers in Massachusetts, along with the general population, should be aware of this ruling.” Boston personal injury attorney Karen Piso Nadeau added that “According to this ruling, if underage guests drive drunk and cause injuries and/or deaths, the supplier of the alcohol remains liable, potentially absolving social hosts of liability. This will have a large impact on parents and caretakers of underage residents in Massachusetts.” It remains to be seen whether an increase in OUI related injuries and accidents will result as a product of future “bring your own booze” parties.

In Massachusetts, operating under the influence (OUI) is a serious crime. A driver is considered to be under the influence of alcohol if he has at least a .08 blood alcohol content (BAC). The penalties for OUI increase if the impaired driver subsequently causes injuries and/or death to another person.

OUI charges require skilled and experienced Boston criminal defense lawyers. At Bellotti Law Group, our criminal defense attorneys have successfully handled numerous OUI and drunk driving cases.

Bellotti Law Group serves Boston, Cambridge, Braintree, Quincy, the South Shore and all of Massachusetts. Our offices are located in Boston, Cambridge, and Quincy. Contact us today at 617-225-2100.You can also contact us through our online form and we will promptly respond.