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California Civil Liability for Providing Alcohol to Minors

In addition to criminal liability, parents or adults who provide alcohol to people under the age of 21 may also face civil liability if the minors who have consumed the alcohol cause harm to others, explains an Orange County injury lawyer. This liability comes from a set of laws commonly known as "social host" laws.  Social host laws are a subset of premises liability laws. 


The basic premises liability law in California is found in Civil Code section 1714 and stipulates that, "Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself." 


Under this law, certain cases, including 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, imposed liability on a property owner for injuries that arose as a result of the owner giving alcohol to an intoxicated person. 


However, the legislature determined that these cases did not serve the public policy goals associated with the premises liability law and thus added a provision to Civil Code section 1714 that altered the common law rule the courts had established. The new rule passed by the legislature is found in 1714(b) and indicates that the consumption of the alcohol by the intoxicated person was the proximate (direct) cause of injuries, rather than the property owner furnishing the alcohol. In other words, the "chain of causation" was broken when the person drank, and the property owner was thus not liable for any injury resulting from the provision of the alcohol.


Once 1714(b) had been added to the California law, property owners were essentially absolved of responsibility if they gave guests alcohol, guests chose to drink it and injury occurred as a result. However, the problem was that this allowed parents who gave alcohol to teens to avoid any civil liability that arose from the consequences of this decision. This unintended effect of the law put California at odds with many states that had "social host" laws to hold parents responsible if they gave alcohol to minors. Many people throughout California also believed it was bad public policy to absolve parents of responsibility for allowing kids to drink. 


As such, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Consumer Attorneys of California sponsored a bill dubbed the Teen Alcohol Safety Act.  The Bill became a law, effective January of 2011, and changed the premises liability laws found in 1714 yet again:


“(d) 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 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."


Essentially, this new provision makes clear that when a parent, guardian or other adult gives alcohol to teens or minors at his or her home and an injury or death results, the parent is civilly liable for damages in a personal injury or wrongful death claim.  In signing this Act into law, California joined other states with some type of social host laws, including Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut, among others. 


Additional information on the state’s social host laws, as well as on the injury and the wrongful death claims process, is available to the public free of charge through our Preferred Friends and Clients Program


If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with an Orange County injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596. 

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