North Carolina summers are a great time for backyard cookouts and other get-togethers.
In addition to food, and maybe some entertainment, hosts often provide beer, wine, or other alcoholic drinks to their guests.
But what are the legal risks involved when you provide alcohol to your guests? And, what other legal issues may come into play when you host a party or other event at your home? This article explores some specific liability issues, namely the application of "social host" liability and "premises" liability.
Social Host Liability
If you serve alcohol to someone in your home who is already intoxicated, and who you know, or should know, will drive after the social occasion has ended, you can be legally liable for any injuries that result from your guest's intoxicated driving.
North Carolina courts recognize a cause of action under the common law theory of social host liability if you:
Serve alcohol to a person;
When you, as host, know, or should know, the person is intoxicated; and,
When you know, or should know, the person will be driving afterwards.
So, if you host a party and allow a friend to have too much to drink and the friend drives home and causes a wreck, you can be personally liable for any damages caused. This is true whether the wreck results in minor injuries, major injuries, or death.
Of course, the intoxicated friend likely will be legally liable as well. However, North Carolina law allows an injured party to pursue claims against everyone whose negligence (i.e., the failure to use reasonable care) contributed to the injury.
Social host liability claims are very fact-specific. Evidence that you knew or should have known a guest was intoxicated may include:
Knowledge of how many total drinks were consumed by the guest at the party;
Knowledge that the guest had been drinking somewhere else earlier; or,
Evidence that the typical signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech, were obvious.
Evidence of whether you knew, or should have known, the guest was going to drive may include:
Knowledge that your guest drove to your party that night;
Your guest's normal habits; or,
Specific communications between you and the guest.
These evidentiary requirements would need to be investigated for, or in defense of, any claim, including through use of the discovery process (e.g., interrogatories and depositions) if a lawsuit is filed.
You can also be liable if someone is injured at your home while attending a party or other social event. If you invite someone to your home, North Carolina law requires that you exercise the duty of reasonable care not to unnecessarily expose the lawful visitor to a dangerous situation and to warn of any hidden dangers. This means that you, as host, must exercise "reasonable care." This might include maintaining your property in a proper manner so it is not unsafe, or cleaning up after a spill.
To recover for any damages, the injured party must prove that you, as the property owner, negligently caused the condition or failed to correct the condition after you knew, or should have known, of its existence. If there is a dangerous situation that cannot reasonably be corrected (a hidden drop-off, etc.), then you are required to give an adequate warning of the dangerous condition. However, if the condition is obviously apparent to any reasonable person, (ice on a sidewalk on a snowy night, etc.) there may not be a duty on your part to warn.
When you host a social event at your home, it's important to ensure there are no unsafe conditions on your property where guests may congregate. Such conditions may include slippery stairs when you have had a reasonable opportunity to clear them, unlit areas with severe drop-offs, or an unsafe swimming pool, among others.
If there are unsafe areas, you should repair the problem before hosting a party, or keep the guests away from those areas. Alternatively, an adequate warning may suffice. Failure to take these steps may mean that a "trip and fall" or other injury occurring during a party will lead to your personal legal liability.
What if someone is injured as a result of an intoxicated guest, or because of an unsafe condition on your property? If you are liable, the injured party will be entitled to damages assuming a legal defense does not apply. Under North Carolina law, these damages can include:
Medical bills (past and future);
Lost wages or other income;
Diminished future earning capacity;
Pain and suffering;
Scarring or disfigurement;
Loss of use of a body part; and,
The permanency associated with any continuing injuries.
Again, note that when an innocent third-party is injured by a drunk driver negligently overserved at a social function, the injured party can pursue the full amount of damages against the liable host (and not just the drunk driver). Under North Carolina law, all negligent parties whose negligence contributed to the injuries at issue can be held liable for the full extent of the damages. (Of course, a plaintiff typically cannot double recover, so the plaintiff cannot collect 100% of their damages from each liable party. In these cases, there can be an offset for amounts recovered from another defendant.)
What Can You, as a Host, Do to Prevent Injury Claims?
There's always risk in whatever we do. No one would ever suggest you not host friends at your home. And, there is nothing wrong with responsibly serving adult beverages. The law simply requires that we all use reasonable care—i.e., that we act as carefully as a reasonable and prudent person would act in the same situation.
In the case of social events at your home, it's important to make sure invited guests are people you believe are going to act responsibly, and will not drink and drive. Consider offering to pay for a taxi, Uber, or secure another safe ride home for guests if you have any reason to believe they cannot drive safely. In the case of potential premises liability claims, make sure that your property is properly maintained such that there aren't any unsafe conditions that could harm a guest.
Finally, make sure you are adequately insured. A sufficient homeowner's policy can protect against liability to a certain point, and an "umbrella" policy can provide additional protection—usually up to $1,000,000.00 if not more. Adequate insurance can ensure that, if an accident happens, your personal assets are protected from any judgment. Otherwise, a judgment could mean that an injured party can attempt to collect against your personal assets—including, but not limited to your real estate, personal property, bank accounts, stocks, and bonds.
What if You Are the Injured Party?
If you are an innocent third-party injured by an intoxicated individual, you likely have a valid legal claim against the intoxicated person. Depending on the facts, you may have valid claims against additional persons—including the host of a party or other social event through the above-described "social host" liability legal theory.
Given the various legal principles involved and the fact-specific nature of these claims, the best course of action typically is to consult an attorney who specializes in personal injury law. The same approach applies if you are injured on the property of another, and you believe their negligence contributed to your injury, thus potentially establishing a premises liability claim.
North Carolina summers are fantastic (and the falls, winters, and springs aren't bad either). They provide great opportunities to enjoy social events with friends and family—cookouts, pool parties, the Fourth of July, and other gatherings. When serving alcohol, however, it is important to do so responsibly. It's the right thing to do—and, doing so can protect you from potential "social host" liability claims. Also, ensure that all areas of your property that your guests will enjoy are reasonably safe.
Unfortunately, injuries often still happen. If someone claims they were injured and that you are liable to them for their damages on the basis of social host or premises liability, or if you or a family member are injured, and you believe there is a valid social host or premises liability claim, consider contacting an experienced personal injury attorney to assist with what can be a difficult, and legally complex, situation.