California Social Host Laws: Be Responsible; Beware Liability

Lewitt Hackman

Forget #deflategate, and what the New England Patriots may, or may not have done to balls used in the American Football Conference championship game this year. There's a bigger issue at stake for those planning on throwing Super Bowl parties this weekend – that of social responsibility and liability.

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that party hosts may be held legally liable when an underage drinker causes harm to others. The ruling came in favor of a family of a college student who was killed by an underage drunken driver. The hostess of the party (who was underage herself) charged her guests $3-5 admission to help fund the party. The court said this cover charge essentially turned the party into a "pop-up nightclub", and thus made the hostess liable, as she sold alcohol to a minor.

Upon hearing the defense's arguments, the Court said among other things, that "a social host can retain her immunity by simply refraining from charging any of her invited guests."

As of 1978 the state legislature decided that liability for the death or injury of someone hurt or killed by a drunk driver falls on the driver, rather than on the private individual who provided the driver with alcohol, since most private parties have open bars where the guests serve themselves. But the law changed in 2011, with a new caveat: a host who knowingly serves alcohol to a minor, can now be held liable.

California Civil Code §1714(d) states:

(1) Nothing in subdivision (c) 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, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

 (2) A claim under this subdivision may be brought by, or on behalf of, the person under 21 years of age or by a person who was harmed by the person under 21 years of age.

California Social Host Laws and Overindulging Adults

Though the laws for dram shops (businesses that sell alcohol) and social hosts generally protect those serving alcohol from liability, the vendor or host can still be held liable for serving a minor, as stated in Civil Code §1714(d) above; and may be found guilty of a misdemeanor, for serving "habitual or common drunkards" under Business and Professions Code §25602.

Even though over-serving drunkards may only constitute a misdemeanor, there's still the question of social responsibility. Just remember this rule of thumb for your Super Bowl party: more food, less alcohol, no charge…and never give alcohol to a minor.


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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