Are Partying Passengers Liable for Partying Driver?

Author: Nicole Lenat

However, if you are a passenger in a vehicle who encouraged or helped supply an underage driver with alcohol, you probably owe no liability to an injured plaintiff if an accident ensues. This is due to the common law rule, largely upheld today, which does not impose liability on a social host who serves alcohol. This common law defense is codified in California Civil Code Section 1714. Specifically, in subsection (b), the legislature explicitly elects to overturn cases which tended to impose a broader scope of liability to those that furnish alcohol. (See Civ. Code Section 1714(b), which overturns Vesely v. Sager (1971) 5 Cal.3d 153, Bernhard v. Harrah’s Club (1976) 16 Cal.3d 313, and Coulter v. Superior Court (1978) 21 Cal.3d 144). In doing so, the legislature chose to reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this code section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

In 2010, the California legislature passed an amendment to current law which carved out a single exception to the “no liability” rule: an adult providing beverages at his or her residence to someone known to be under 21 can be held liable if that person’s intoxication leads to injuries or death. (California Civil Code Section 1714(d)(1). This is a narrow exception, which requires the furnishing to occur at the person’s residence.

Therefore, in last summer’s case of Rybicki v. Carlson, 216 Cal. App. 4th 758, 157 Cal. Rptr. 3d 660 (2013), the court held that the four intoxicated passengers were not liable for “conspiring” to provide alcohol to the under-21 driver who hit and injured a bicyclist on the road. In this case, the five girls had obtained the assistance of a stranger to purchase alcohol for them in helping to supply a future house party. The five girls later consumed alcohol at said house party, and thereafter got into a vehicle driven by one of them, Jaclyn Garcia. They got into an accident with a bicyclist, injuring him. The biker and his wife filed suit against all occupants of the vehicle for negligence.

The plaintiffs’ theory against the passengers consisted of civil conspiracy to violate section 1714 and aiding and abetting a violation of section 1714. The court held, however, that although a claim against the homeowner who hosted the party appears to fall within the section 1714, subdivision (d) exception, plaintiffs cannot simply “bootstrap” the four other girls into that exception by alleging that they conspired with or aided and abetted the homeowner by providing alcoholic beverages that were furnished to Garcia. The court explained that the exception set forth in subdivision (d) vitiates subdivision (b) for a very narrow class of claims: claims against an adult who knowingly furnishes alcohol at his or her residence to a person he or she knows is under the age of 21. (Rybicki v. Carlson, 216 Cal. App. 4th 758, 764, 157 Cal. Rptr. 3d 660, 664 (2013)). Because the four passengers were not alleged to have furnished alcohol to Garcia at their residences, plaintiffs’ claims against them were barred because, as a matter of statutory law, plaintiffs could not establish that respondents’ actions proximately caused plaintiffs’ injuries. Thus, the partying passengers were not on the hook for the biker’s damages.

It is true the legislature has carved out a small exception to a rule of no liability for social hosts. However, in cases such as Rybicki, it is apparent that California courts are not considering expanding this exception at the present time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Lenat is a graduate from the University of California, San Diego and received her Juris Doctorate from Pepperdine University School of Law in 2006. Ms. Lenat’s focus is on products liability and business litigation.

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