Torts – Parents and Minor not Liable for Minor Guest’s Alcohol Poisoning Death

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Steve Allen, et al. v. Wallace Liberman, et al.
 
Court of Appeal, Third District (June 18, 2014)

In this case, the Appellate Court applied social host immunity to exonerate defendant parents and their minor daughter who permitted a minor guest in their home to consume alcohol which caused her death.  Parents of the guest had argued that the social host immunity did not apply. 
 
Wallace and Debby Liberman furnished alcohol to their minor daughter, Kayli Liberman.  Kayli invited her friend, minor Shelby Allen, to spend the night.  Wallace suspected the minors wanted to drink alcohol and cautioned them that, although his daughters had permission to do so in their home, he did not have the right to give such permission to Shelby, who should talk to her own parents about the subject.  After Wallace and Debby went to bed, Shelby drank 15 shots of vodka in one hour and passed out.  Kayli positioned Shelby in the bathroom with her head against the toilet, took away her cell phone and went to bed. 
 
The next morning, Kayli told Wallace they had been drinking and Shelby had been sick.  Wallace went to work without checking on Shelby.  Another friend found Shelby not breathing, called Wallace and he returned home and began CPR.  A deputy detected a faint pulse and found Shelby warm to the touch, but she was pronounced dead less than a half an hour later.  Her blood alcohol content was 0.339 at the time of death, and the cause of death was acute ethanol intoxication. 
 
Shelby’s parents sued Kayli on the grounds that she had an affirmative duty to help Shelby, and sued her parents because they furnished alcohol to Shelby knowing she intended to consume 15 shots of vodka and left her unattended after she became intoxicated and unconscious.  The trial court ultimately granted the Libermans’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that the lawsuit brought by Shelby’s parents is barred by California’s social host immunity statute (Civ. Code §1714(c).)  Shelby’s parents appealed.
 
The appellate court traced the history of tort liability for those who provide alcoholic beverages in a social setting.  In 1978, the legislature granted “sweeping civil immunity” to those who provide alcohol and imposed “sole and exclusive liability upon the consumer of alcoholic beverages” for any injury resulting from the consumer’s intoxication.  The court recognized that the California Supreme Court in Ennabe v. Manosa (2014) 58 Cal.4th 697, 707-710, permitted a civil action against persons selling liquor to an obviously intoxicated minor under specified circumstances.  [See Weekly Law Resume Article dated March 28, 2014.]
 
In 2010, the Civil Code section governing the supply of alcohol to minors had been amended as a result of Shelby Allen’s death.  The author of the amendment stated that
 
“the measure is not about somehow imposing ‘automatic liability’ on any adult who may have inadvertently provided access to alcohol by a minor. . . Under the bill, the families of a minor injured or killed by alcohol will still need to prove in court all the elements of negligence – that an adult social host . . . breached his or her responsibility to uphold the law, knowingly provided alcohol to the child, and injuries or death thereby resulted from this action. . . .  The recent tragedy by Shelby Allen has helped inspire this measure.”
 
However, pursuant to the law in effect at the time of Shelby’s death, the Libermans were not liable for furnishing the alcohol that caused her death or for failing to supervise her.  The Allens argued that, because the Libermans did not furnish alcohol to Shelby, the social host immunity statute does not apply and they may be held liable for negligently supervising her.  The court disagreed, stating:
 
“It would not make sense to interpret the statute in a manner that gives a person immunity for directly handing a drink to a minor, but affords no similar protection to a person who fails to lock up the liquor cabinet to prevent the minor from helping herself to alcohol.”
 
The court concluded that the Libermans were immune from liability even if they did not directly furnish the alcohol to Shelby but simply failed to prevent her from drinking it in their home.  Although they had a special relationship with Shelby because she was a minor invited into their home, that relationship, by itself, does not negate the specific statutory social host immunity applicable to these facts. 
 
The Allens also claimed that Kayli breached her duty to exercise reasonable care, and that rendering aid to Shelby had increased her risk of harm.  The court found that, while Kayli could have done much more to protect or aid Shelby, she did not have a legally recognized special relationship creating a duty to render such assistance.  Kayli was not a business proprietor, Shelby was not her customer and Kayli was not an adult who had invited a minor into her home.  The Allens did not cite authority imposing a special relationship on a minor who invites another minor to stay the night. 
 
COMMENT
 
In Ennabe, a minor who provided alcohol to another minor after charging him for admission to her party was found potentially liable when her guest left her party and ran over another guest.  In Allen, where there was no sale of alcohol, the court declined to extend liability to the parents and minor who invited a friend to stay the night.  Shelby Allen’s death inspired the California legislature to tighten restrictions on provision of alcohol to minors, but the overriding legislative initiative is to hold the drinker responsible for the results of drinking. 
 
For a copy of the complete decision, see: 
 
http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C068985.PDF
 
For a copy of the complete Ennabe decision, see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S189577.PDF

 

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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