Allowing a social guest, of any age, to consume alcohol to the point of impairment, in essence, makes the social host a guarantor of the safety of others on the highway ...
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
March 12, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Connecticut recognizes two theories of responsibility for those who serve liquor to intoxicated persons. The responsbility extends to the consequences of intoxication, including harm to others.
The first theory focuses on persons, including businesses, licensed by the state to sell liquor, under a law entitled the Dram Shop Act. The second area of responsibility focuses on private persons and is referred to as "social host liability."
Although ancient in the derivation of its name, the Dram Shop Act has recently been amended to increase the penalty on violators. Section 30-102 of the Connecticut General Statutes provides in part:
"If any person, by such person or such person's agent, sells any alcoholic liquor to an intoxicated person, and such purchaser, in consequence of such intoxication, thereafter injures the person or property of another, such seller shall pay just damages to the person injured, up to the amount of two hundred fifty thousand dollars, or to persons injured in consequence of such intoxication up to an aggregate amount of two hundred fifty thousand dollars. . ."
The act applies to the sale of liquor by those persons licensed by the state. The definition of "person" includes corporations and businesses. It also provides a strict time limit for notice of a claim to be made and lessens the time within which such a claim can be filed in court.
Under the common law, prior to the creation of the act, one could only recover against the intoxicated person, the theory being that the proximate cause of intoxication was the consumption of alcohol not the furnishing of it. The act is not grounded in the law of negligence, but rather is considered a penalty for serving an already intoxicated person. The key is that there must be proof that the one served was intoxicated at the time. Merely furnishing liquor to someone who then causes injury does not create responsibility.
Prior to 2003 the amount that a single injured party could recover under the act was $20,000, and the aggregate limit was $40,000. The aggregate limit is the total amount recoverable if multiple parties are injured by a single drunk.
As the Connecticut Supreme Court observed in a recent case:
"To prevail, a plaintiff simply must prove: (1) the sale of the alcoholic liquor; (2) that the sale was to an intoxicated person; and (3) that the intoxicated person caused injury to another's person or property as a result of his or her intoxication . . . Accordingly, the act covers all sales of liquor that result in an intoxicated person causing injury, irrespective of the bar owner's knowledge or state of mind. The act thereby provides an action in strict liability, both without the burden of proving the element of scienter [intent or knowledge of wrongdoing] essential to a negligence action and without the benefit of the broader scope of recovery permitted under such an action. It sets, in essence, a minimum recovery opportunity for persons injured as a result of the sale of liquor to an intoxicated person."
In that decision the Supreme Court attempted to broaden the rights of an injured person to recover under common law negligence. Such an action would provide a significantly greater amount that could be recovered as damages.
The Legislature did not agree and the most recent amendments to the Act increased the penalty to the $250,000.00 limit, but also made clear that common law negligence actions could not be brought against the liquor seller if the person served was 21 or older: "Such injured person shall have no cause of action against such seller for negligence in the sale of alcoholic liquor to a person twenty-one years of age or older."
One Supreme Court jurist, the late Justice Bogdanski, observed the difference in modes of transportation when negligence actions were not permitted, and our modern conveyances that substantially increase the risk of harm from intoxicated drivers:
"When most people walked and few had horses or carriages, or even in the days when the horse and buggy was a customary mode of travel, it may have been that the common law rule of non-liability arising from the sale of liquor to an intoxicated person was satisfactory. But the situation then and the problem in today's society of the imbiber going upon the public highways and operating a machine that requires quick response of mind and muscle and capable of producing mass death and destruction are vastly different."
Social host liability attaches, most frequently in the context of the parents who allow minor guests to consume alcohol and then who leave and cause injury. In another landmark decision the Supreme Court reexamined the logic of its previous decisions rejecting a common-law action in negligence, and concluded that ". . .[social] hosts could be liable for injuries caused by one of the minor guests, who, after leaving the party, operated an automobile while intoxicated and killed another guest.
The court expressed doubt about the logic, when applied to a minor, of the common-law presumption that intoxication results from the voluntary conduct of a person who has exercised a knowing and intelligent choice to consume intoxicating liquor. Further, the court found it persuasive that our state's public policy, as manifested in numerous relevant civil and criminal statutes, 'reflects a continuing and growing public awareness and concern that children as a class are simply incompetent by reason of their youth and inexperience to deal responsibly with the effects of alcohol.' "
In recognizing a claim for social host liability grounded in common law negligence the Connecticut Supreme Court has cited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics for the nation and Connecticut:
"In 2000, 16,653 people died in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents on our nation's highways, an average of one alcohol-related death every thirty-two minutes. Thirty-one percent of these accidents involved intoxicated persons with blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 or greater; in those accidents, almost one third of the fatalities were passengers, non-intoxicated drivers or non-occupants.
"In 2000, approximately 310,000 people were injured in alcohol- related motor vehicle accidents, an average of one person injured every two minutes.
"In 2000, it was estimated that about three in every ten Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives.
"In 2000, 158 people died in Connecticut in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, constituting 46 percent of all traffic fatalities. Connecticut had one of the highest alcohol-related traffic fatality rates in the nation, with only nine states having higher rates." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts 2000, at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/alcohol/facts.htm.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also cited these additional statistics:
"In 1998, alcohol-related traffic accidents cost Connecticut more than $900 million, including more than $300 million in monetary costs and more than $600 million in quality of life costs.
"In 1998, the average cost to Connecticut per alcohol-related fatality was $ 4.2 million. The estimated cost per injured survivor was on average $ 105,000."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Impaired Driving in Connecticut, at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/alcohol/CT.htm/facts.htm.
The Supreme Court concluded that an injured person has a right to sue a social host if that host negligently serves alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person and such guest consequently causes injury to another. Thus voluntary consumption of alcohol no longer serves to bar to a negligence action against a social host.
In 2006 the legislature passed Public Acts 2006, No. 06-112, § 1, which amended General Statutes § 30-89 as follows: "1. . . . (Effective October 1, 2006) (a) No person having possession of, or exercising dominion and control over, any dwelling unit or private property shall (1) knowingly permit any minor to possess alcoholic liquor . . . in such dwelling unit or on such private property, or (2) knowing that any minor possesses alcoholic liquor . . . in such dwelling unit or on such private property, fail to make reasonable efforts to halt such possession. For the purposes of this subsection, 'minor' means a person under twenty-one years of age. (b) Any person who violates [this act] for a first offense, have committed an infraction and, for any subsequent offense, be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than one year, or both."
Thus, the parent who permits minors to possess liquor faces not only civil responsibility, but potential criminal prosecution as well. As prom season approaches again parents are reminded that they face the serious consequences of a major lawsuit if they fail to monitor the activities of their guests, regardless of age. Allowing a social guest, of any age, to consume alcohol to the point of impairment, in essence, makes the social host a guarantor of the safety of others on the highway when the drunk guest is allowed to leave.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com