Social Host Liable For Intoxicated Guest’s Accident

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Faiez Ennabe, et al. v. Carlos Manosa, et al. (2014) 58 Cal.4th 697

California Supreme Court (February 24, 2014)

In the Ennabe case, the California Supreme Court wrestled with the tangle of case law and legislation regulating the sale and serving of alcohol and its resulting drunk driver carnage.

Case law since 1921 had protected a person who furnished alcohol to another person from liability for the damages resulting from his intoxication.  In 1971, the California Supreme Court held that furnishing alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person could be the legal cause of injury to a third person. Vesely v. Sager, (1971) 5 Cal. 3d 153.  In 1978, the court extended Vesely to include a social host serving alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person with knowledge that he intended to drive while drunk.  The social host’s failure to act with reasonable care could result in liability for damages caused by the drunk driver.  Coulter v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal. 3d 145.

Later in 1978, the California legislature abrogated these Supreme Court opinions, reasoning that the consumption of alcohol, not the serving of it, is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted by the drunk.  Business and Professions Code section 25602 was amended to prevent civil liability for servers of alcohol. Civil Code section 1714 was amended in 1978 to provide that no social host who furnishes alcohol to any person could be liable for damages resulting from consumption of the alcohol.  The legislature enacted an exception for under-aged drinkers, stating that those licensed to sell alcohol could be liable for harm caused by minors who were already obviously intoxicated when they were served.  Business &Professions Code § 25602.1.  This exception [permitting liability of the server] did not apply to serving alcohol to sober minors or obviously intoxicated adults. 

In 1986, the legislature amended B&P Code § 25602.1 to permit liability of a licensed seller of alcohol who furnished alcohol to a minor, and liability of “any other person” who sold alcohol to a minor.    A social host who furnished but did not sell alcohol could not be liable, even for an obviously intoxicated minor.

In the Spring of 2007, Jessica Manosa, a minor, hosted a party and appointed one of the guests to charge admission at the door.  Thomas Garcia, an obviously intoxicated minor, paid $20 to gain entrance and drank liquor provided by Manosa.  When he started harassing other guests, Garcia was ushered outside by another guest, Andrew Ennabe.  As Garcia drove away, he ran over Ennabe, who died from his injuries. 

Ennabe’s parents sued Manosa for wrongful death, asserting general negligence, premises liability, and liability under B&P Code section 25602.1.  Manosa moved for summary judgment, claiming that, as a social host, B&P section 25602(b) and Civil Code section 1714(c) gave her civil immunity.  The trial court granted her summary judgment and the Appellate Court affirmed. 

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Werdegar, the California Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment.  The Court framed the issue as an interpretation of the scope of statutory immunity for social hosts who provide alcohol to their guests and the exception to that immunity for hosts who sell alcoholic beverages, or cause them to be sold, to obviously intoxicated minors.  The court concluded that the B&P exception to immunity applied, and that Mamosa’s actions constituted a sale, rendering her potentially liable as a person who sold alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor. 

In 2007, when this case arose, Civil Code section 1714(c) provided:  “No social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages … resulting from the consumption of those beverages.”  B&P Code section 25602(b) provided:  “No person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished or given away, any alcoholic beverage … shall be civilly liable to any injured person … for injuries inflicted … as a result of intoxication by the consumer of such alcoholic beverage.”  Section 25602.1, the exception to this statutory immunity, appears in the Business and Professions Code, but the Civil Code contains no similar provision.

The Court solicited and considered amicus briefs on the issue whether section 25602.1 even applies to a private person who, like Manosa, is not in the business of selling alcohol.  Are private persons governed solely by the Civil Code, which includes no explicit exception to its statutory immunity for those who sell or furnish alcoholic beverages to others?  The Court found that the Business and Professions Code does apply to private persons.  It includes rules governing noncommercial providers of alcohol.  One of its categories is “any other person” who sells alcohol. 

The Court next answered the question whether Manosa sold alcoholic beverages.  If she did, she would lose statutory immunity, because section 25602.1 allows suits against “any other person who sells or causes to be sold” alcohol to any obviously intoxicated minor when the alcohol is the cause of injury.  The Justices looked to the California Constitution, which regulated alcohol “to eliminate the evils of unlicensed … selling … of alcoholic beverages, and to promote temperance in the use and consumption of alcoholic beverages.”  The Court, thought that, in a close case, “we should err on the side of permitting liability, for the possibility of liability may provide a strong deterrent against the provision of alcohol to minors, especially those who are already obviously intoxicated.”  The Court relied on the statutory definition of “sale” as including “any transaction whereby, for any consideration, title to alcoholic beverages is transferred from one person to another.”  Here, title passed to Garcia when he took a drink at the party.   The Court found that the collection of money from Garcia was in essence a cover charge, and constituted “consideration” paid for the drink. 

In its discussion of the question whether the cover charge was a “sale”, the Court cited an opinion of the California Attorney General.  “May the operator of a commercial enterprise who does not have an alcoholic beverage license legally offer and provide a ‘complimentary’ alcoholic beverage to any interested adult guest, customer, or passenger of the business or service, without specific charge, while at the same time charging for the product provided or the services rendered?”  The AG replied that offering a complimentary drink, while at the same time charging for another related service or product, constituted a sale under section 23025.  This opinion influenced the Ennabe court to conclude that Manosa engaged in an indirect sale of alcohol to Garcia by requiring a cover charge before entry to her party.  Because she sold alcohol to Garcia, section 25602.1 permits a cause of action against her for Ennabe’s wrongful death.  “Any transaction” for “any consideration” qualifies as a sale. 

Important qualifications apply:  Civil liability only attaches if the social host sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor.  If a paying guest does not drink, there is no liability because the statute requires that the sale of alcohol be the proximate cause of injury.  If the guest drinks a beverage provided by someone other than the host, then the host’s sale of alcohol was not the cause of the minor’s intoxication and thus the injury.  For guests who pay no admission charge, the host retains her immunity, because without consideration, there can be no sale under the statute.

COMMENT

With this case, the Supreme Court sought to “balance the interests involved.”  Immunity from civil suits may be on the wane, as demonstrated by the Marriott case in which the hotel gave a party for its employees and provided two free drinks.  One employee arrived drunk and drank from his own flask during the party, presumably also enjoying the two free drinks provided by his employer.  He drove home, went inside, then came out, got back in his car, drove away, and caused an injury accident.  Plaintiff sued Marriott, and won.  Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 499.  [Weekly Law Resume for July 31, 2013.]

For a copy of the complete Ennabe decision, see:
http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S189577.PDF

Topics:  Intoxication, Personal Liability, Wine & Alcohol

Published In: Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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