Maryland Court of Appeals Creates a New Cause of Action Against Adults Who Allow Underage Drinking

Posted on by Peter Basile in Litigation.

The Court of Appeals has broken new ground in Maryland law, holding that parents or other adults who “knowingly and willfully” host an underage drinking party can be held civilly liable for death or injury caused by an intoxicated attendee.  The case is Kirakos v. Phillips, decided on July 5, 2016.  The ruling is the first time the Court has recognized the potential liability of party hosts for alcohol-related harm caused by their guests under the legal drinking age of 21.

The unanimous Court based the landmark decision on Maryland Code CR §10-117(b), the criminal statute that makes it illegal for adults to serve alcohol to underage individuals outside of their immediate family or a religious service.  The Court found that that the criminal statute was for the purpose of protecting minors from the dangers of alcohol consumption; and it therefore contained within it a civil cause of action for people harmed as a result of that underage drinking. The Court explained:  “We hold that there exists a limited form of social host liability sounding in negligence based on the strong public policy reflected in CR §10-117(b)” because the General Assembly “carved out that specific class for special protection against adult social hosts who knowingly and willfully allow consumption of alcoholic beverages on their property.”

The appeal combined two lawsuits brought by victims of drunk driving accidents against the adults who hosted the parties leading to underage intoxication. Both cases were originally dismissed by the Circuit Court, which noted that there was no statute or case law that authorized suit against these adults. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed, prompting the review by the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals based much of its reasoning on the existing law of negligent entrustment, under which the owner of an automobile can be liable for allowing an impaired or irresponsible driver to operate it.  The Maryland court, quoting from the Supreme Court of Arizona, stated: “[w]e perceive little difference in principle between liability for giving a car to an intoxicated youth and liability for giving drinks to a youth with a car.”

The opinion also held that the adult who provides the alcohol or hosts the party can be liable for damages even to the intoxicated minor, and cannot raise the defense of contributory negligence.  The Court found that the statute was enacted to protect underage people from the “seductive call of alcohol”, and so prescribed that the proximate cause of any injury would be “willful or knowing” decision of the adult.

This Maryland case joins similar opinions from Florida, Washington, Michigan, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina in allowing a cause of action against adults who host or allow underage drinking.  The case now returns to the Circuit Court to proceed through the litigation process to a final resolution on the merits.