By Jim Diamond
Now that this awful winter is finally over, April showers are giving way to May flowers and people are starting to plan parties and activities at home like graduation parties, prom parties, or any other get-togethers, it’s a good time to think about your liability for what happens when something goes wrong. And a lot can go wrong.
As parents, what are some of the things that you need to worry about when there’s a party in your house?
If your kid’s are like mine, and I have four of them, they look for houses where parents are not home. You have plenty to worry about whether you’re home or not and there’s a party.
Let’s run through one hypothetical scenario:
YOU HAVE A GRADUATION PARTY FOR YOUR CHILD
One fine weekend in June you hold a party for your son Fred to honor his graduation from High School. Fred has invited his friends, who are 15-18 years old, and you have invited adult friends. It gets loud and the police arrive. It seems they were called by your neighbor—your former friend. David, an 18 year-old senior, drives away from your house intoxicated. You swear that the alcohol was only intended and provided for the adults. The police see beer cans close to some of the kids out on the deck. One of those kids also has a marijuana joint in his jacket pocket. In David’s car (owned by his parents) is Jennifer, 15, a sophomore, who is also intoxicated. David crashes into a telephone pole, sadly, killing Jennifer. Jennifer’s parents have sued you for millions of dollars, and there is community pressure on the police to make arrests.
The police can search the yard if they see something suspicious in the yard, and they’re going to be very aggressive about getting into your house. You don’t have to consent to the search of your house, but try hard to have a cooperative attitude; it will go a long way.
What are you liabilities? Who can be arrested?
Your social host civil liability
Your civil liability depends completely on the particular facts of your case. The more careless you are the more you’re going to be on the hook for civil damages. In CT you are not always civilly liable in these circumstances. Assuming David got his hands on your liquor and left your house intoxicated and you took little to no action to prevent him from doing both, you are probably going to be liable. If he snuck his own liquor onto your property (check the bushes and the water bottles!) and parked down the block and said he had a ride, you’re less likely to be on the hook. Remember, the person primarily liable for the civil damages is David. Your troubles are far from over, however.
David’s parent’s vicarious civil liability
In Connecticut David’s parents are only civilly liable up to a limit of $5,000, if they own or control the car and David’s use of it.
David’s Civil Liability
David, the negligent driver, is also liable for every dollar Jennifer’s parents can get from him when they prove he was the cause of her injuries, in this case death. This is where a good insurance policy is important, and not just the state minimums. This will to protect your children from massive future civil judgments. It will also help you and your children in criminal court if they are covered with a good insurance policy. Think umbrella coverage.
David’s Criminal Arrest
David will be arrested for DWI (Operating under the Influence in CT) and Vehicular Homicide, a very serious felony charge. He is very likely going to prison.
You also have a big problem in this regard, with much potential criminal liability. First, under a new CT law, passed in 2012, you could be arrested for Allowing Minors (under 21) To Possess Alcoholic Liquor (CGS 30-89a). Each minor found with alcohol could bring a separate criminal charge against you and each one is a Class “A” Misdemeanor. You have another problem and it is much more substantial.
THE BIG ONE –Risk of Injury To Minors
What you really need to be concerned with is your being arrested for felony charges of Risk of Injury To A Minor. This is (vaguely) defined as follows:
“Any person who willfully…causes or permits any child under 16 to be placed in a situation that the life or limb…is endangered…shall be guilty of a class C Felony.”
As a class C Felony, it’s very serious and could bring a jail sentence, depending on the facts involved. I have actually represented clients arrested for this crime where 15 year olds became intoxicated, taken to the hospital for alcohol poisoning and adult siblings were home. The siblings were arrested and charged with Risk of Injury. In addition to being concerned about the possible penalties you have to worry about lots of possible “collateral” consequences at your job and other places (like immigration or child custody for example) with a possible felony conviction.
The Arrest of the Underage Kids Found With Alcohol
Each minor under 21 who the police decide possessed alcoholic beverages (when their “buddies” tell the police who was holding the beer cans, and they will tell!) could also be charged with “Possession of Alcohol By a Minor.” For the minor, the charge is only a “violation,” not a crime. Here is something important to take note of, though: under new CT penalties even though the minors at the party were not in a car, their driver’s license will be suspended if they plead guilty (by mail or in Court) to this offense. Similarly, “Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana” in your house by the minor is also an infraction for the minor, but a conviction will also result in the suspension of the minor’s driver’s license. Pay very close attention to those suspension notices from DMV—driving under suspension is a criminal offense and will result in a misdemeanor arrest and increased insurance premiums.
- Don’t be afraid to act like a cop in your own home when alcohol is served, as “uncool” as your kids may think you are—it may save their future or a life;
- Guard the booze and carefully monitor who is serving it and being served;
- Carefully watch what the kids sneak in or leave in the bushes of your yard; they’re crafty;
- Do not allow anybody—minors or adults- to drive away impaired by alcohol;
- Lock up the alcohol when you are out of town;
- The same civil liability exists when adults leave your home intoxicated;
- Carry a strong insurance policy on your auto, and an umbrella policy if possible for home and auto;
- You do not have to consent to the search of the interior of your home.
And as always, consult an experienced attorney if there is trouble—even as the police are knocking on your door. Hopefully we’ll all have a safe spring!