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Social Host Immunity Saves the Day

As parents with teenagers know, leaving your children unsupervised at the house with an open liquor cabinet can be a dangerous proposition.  This inattention becomes even more problematic when the underage child invites friends over and provides alcohol to them.  Should the parents be held liable for any injuries or death sustained by a minor who was furnished alcohol by the child in the parents’ house?  In the case of Allen v. Liberman, decided June 18, 2014 in the Third Appellate District of the State of California, the court found the parents had no liability under the social host immunity statute.

In Allen, a 17-year old girl, Shelby Allen, went for a sleepover at the home of her 16-year old friend, Kayli Liberman.  After Kayli’s parents went to bed, Shelby obtained vodka from the Libermans’ bar and drank 15 shots.  She started vomiting and passed out.  Kayli propped Shelby’s head against the toilet, took Shelby’s cell phone, closed the bathroom door, and went to bed.

The next morning, Kayli informed her father they had been drinking and Shelby got sick.  Mr. Liberman went to work without checking on Shelby because his daughter had told him Shelby was “okay” and he did not want to “invade the space of a teenage female behind a closed bathroom door.”

Later that morning, another friend checked on Shelby and found Shelby unresponsive.  911 was called, but it was too late.  Shelby was pronounced dead with a blood alcohol content of .339.

Shelby’s parents sued Kayli Liberman and her parents for wrongful death.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment barring the lawsuit based on the social host immunity statute.

In California, a social host who provides alcoholic beverages to a person of legal drinking age enjoys express statutory immunity from civil liability for any injury caused by the alcoholic consumer.  Civil Code §1714(b), (c).

The same protection does not apply for an adult social host who provides alcoholic beverages at the adult’s residence to a person whom the adult knows or should know is under the age of 21.  This exception to the social host immunity law renders the adult social host liable to the underage drinker or someone harmed by the underage drinker due to his or her intoxication.  Civil Code §1714(d).

On appeal, the Allens creatively attempted to bypass the social host immunity statute by arguing: (1) the Libermans’ conduct fell outside the parameters of the social host immunity statute; and (2) the social host immunity statute does not provide blanket immunity to the Libermans because they owed Shelby an independent duty of care.

In addressing the first argument, the court found it illogical to interpret the social host immunity statute in a manner that gives protection to a person for directly handing a drink to a minor, but not to a person who fails to lock up the liquor cabinet to prevent a minor from partaking in alcohol.  Thus, the court found the social host immunity statute applied to the Libermans even if they did not directly provide the alcohol to the minor, but simply failed to prevent the minor from drinking alcohol contained in their home.

As to the second argument that the Libermans owed an independent duty of care as adults to supervise a minor invitee in their home, the court reiterated the general rule that a person has no duty to come to the aid of another unless there is some special relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act.

An exception to this rule is the “Good Samaritan” rule, where a person who elects to come to someone’s aid has a duty to exercise due care and will be held liable if his or her failure to exercise such care increases the risk of harm or the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

The court found no evidence Mr. and Mrs. Liberman acted as “Good Samaritans” at any point before Shelby stopped breathing.  Although a special relationship existed between the Libermans and Shelby as she was a minor invited into their home, that relationship, by itself, did not negate the statutory social host immunity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristi Blackwell is a Partner at Tyson & Mendes.  She specializes in general liability, professional liability and business litigation. Contact Kristi at 858.459.4400 or kblackwell@tysonmendes.com.

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