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There are widespread "dram shop" laws that impose criminal and civil liability on businesses that serve liquor to underage or obviously intoxicated people who later cause drunk driving accidents. But can private hosts be held liable if someone becomes intoxicated while on their premises and later causes a drunk driving accident? Read on to find out.

What is Social Host Liability?

"Social host liability" is the legal term used to describe the criminal and civil responsibility of a private individual who furnishes free liquor to a guest.

"Social host" liability laws have been passed in many states across the U.S. The purpose is to hold adults responsible for serving alcohol on their property - particularly to underage guests. The question is to what extent a person supplying the liquor can be made to answer for a guest's negligent or reckless act? Can the victim of a drunk driver who was served at your party sue you for injuries caused by the driver? Can you face criminal penalties?

The answer depends on where you live. Michigan, like many other states, imposes social host liability on private individuals in cases of underage drinking.

Simply put, a party host may be liable for injuries to the minor who was served alcohol or to any other person whose injury or death resulted from the minor being provided with alcohol.

Some states have extended this responsibility beyond just supplying liquor to minors. In those jurisdictions, there can be civil and criminal responsibility if a private host serves an obviously inebriated person who later causes an accident. To date, Michigan law does not extend that far.

Possible Civil and Criminal Liability

Serving minors with alcohol is illegal in every state, including Michigan. It is unlawful to furnish any minor with alcoholic beverages. Mich. Comp. Law secs. 436.1701. There are no exceptions for serving family members or on any other basis. This law is in addition to other provisions dealing with aiding or abetting alcohol-possession or -consumption by a minor, and laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor, or child endangerment. The law states, in part:

Alcoholic liquor shall not be sold or furnished to a minor. Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2) and subject to subsections (4), (5), and (6), a person who knowingly sells or furnishes alcoholic liquor to a minor, or who fails to make diligent inquiry as to whether the person is a minor, is guilty of a misdemeanor....Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2), a person who is not a retail licensee or a retail licensee's clerk, agent, or employee and who violates this subsection is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 and imprisonment for not more than 60 days for a first offense, a fine of not more than $2,500.00 and imprisonment for not more than 90 days for a second or subsequent offense, and may be ordered to perform community service. For a second or subsequent offense, the secretary of state shall suspend the operator's or chauffeur's license of an individual....

A person who is not a retail licensee or the retail licensee's clerk, agent, or employee and who violates subsection (1) is guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than $5,000.00, or both, if the subsequent consumption of the alcoholic liquor by the minor is a direct and substantial cause of that person's death or an accidental injury that causes that person's death. See Mich. Comp. Law secs. 436.1701 Sec 701. (1) & (2).

Not only can a social host be criminally responsible, he or she may face a damages judgment in a civil lawsuit brought forth by a party injured by the negligence or recklessness of the inebriated minor, or even damages sought by the minor's parents. See e.g., Longstreth v. Gensel 423 Mich. 675, 693-695, 377 NW2d 804 (1985).

Take Steps to Prevent Accidents

Regardless of possible criminal or civil responsibility, every host should take reasonable precautions to make sure that no underage guest drinks alcohol, and that no guest - including adults - leaves the premises drunk and with keys in hand. There are certain steps a conscientious host can take:

1. Have a bartender serve drinks. These servers are trained to spot signs of inebriation that the average social host may not recognize, and they can help keep teenagers from sneaking drinks.

2. Make sure certain guests are named "designated drivers" ahead of time or have the name and number of taxi services. Ask guests how they plan to get home.

Contact Washtenaw County drunk driving attorney Stacey Washington for a case evaluation if you have been arrested and charged for operating while intoxicated (OWI) or furnishing alcohol to a minor.

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