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Civil Liability Generally

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently restated its position, in the case of Willis v. Omar, that a social host owes no duty to a third party for injuries caused by an intoxicated guest unless a special relationship exists between the host and the intoxicated person. The “special relationship” in which the Court has historically imposed liability on the social host is the situation in which the social host illegally provides alcohol to minors with injury resulting.

Willis involved a situation where a man age 24 and his girlfriend age 22 were served Long Island Iced Tea fortified with Cabo Wabo Tequila “non-stop” over a period of more than three hours while guests at another couple’s home. The host couple encouraged the heavy drinking with the husband saying “You’re Irish. You can do better than that.” When the young man and his girlfriend left that night they were involved in an auto accident in which the girlfriend, who was the passenger in the car, suffered severe injuries, resulting in the amputation of her left leg. Blood alcohol tests administered at Rhode Island Hospital that night indicated that the young man’s blood alcohol was .196 and his girlfriend’s was .261.

In the case of Martin v. Marciano, decided 4 years prior to Willis, the defendant provided kegs of beer and other alcoholic beverages to underage partygoers. An altercation arose, fueled by alcohol, during which the plaintiff was struck in the head by an underage drinker wielding a baseball bat. The Court held that the defendant was liable for the damages caused by an underage drinker’s poor party etiquette. A party host who makes alcohol available to an underage guest owes a duty of reasonable care to protect all of his guests from harm, including criminal assault. Such a duty exists because allowing underage drinking gives rise to a special duty based on public policy and forseeablilty grounds. As the court state in the Martin case, “to avoid assuming a duty of protection, the adult property owner must simply comply with existing law and refuse to provide alcohol or condone underage drinking on his or her property.”

Although supplying underage people with alcohol at a high school party may trigger a special relationship in Rhode Island, serving alcohol to an adult guest does not. The Rhode Island Supreme Court first held in the case of Ferreira v. Strack that a social host owed no duty of care to individuals injured by a drunk driver who was drinking alcohol that he himself brought to the social hosts home. And now in Willis v. Omar the Court has held that a social host owed no duty of care to individual injured by a drunk driver who was drinking alcohol that was provided and served by the social host.

The plaintiff in Willis urged to Court to “create a new frontier that will better today’s society and provide a remedy for a victim in circumstances in which the social host’s hospitality leads to “an atmosphere of reckless drinking and driving.”

The Court declined the invitation stating that “although we are sympathetic to plaintiff and to some of the public-policy issues that she addresses, we decline…to overturn well-settled precedent.” The Court then went on to say that the issue may be addressed through the legislative process if such is the desire of the voters and lawmakers.

Dram Shop Liability

It should be noted that these decisions do not apply to licensed alcoholic beverage servers (such as bars and restaurants) and their agents (see R.I. General Laws §§ 3-14-1, et seq. (1998)), or those legally required to be licensed. A licensed server may be liable for damages that occur to someone injured a drunk driver when liquor is served to a visibly intoxicated person and when a reasonably prudent person in similar circumstances would know the individual being served is intoxicated.

Criminal Liability

Social hosts who serve underage drinkers in their homes have been subject to criminal penalties in Rhode Island dating back about two years. However, Barrington police discovered a loophole earlier this year when breaking up a keg party in the yard of a social host of legal age, with numerous underage drinkers present. They found that they couldn’t charge the owner of the house as a “social host” because the law at the time specified penalties only for underage drinking “in his or her residence.” A new law was enacted this summer intended to close this loophole.

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