Written by attorney John Robert Sauter

Think Twice About Giving Alcohol to a Minor: Social Host Liability Explained

Ohio has a number of laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol, most notably the "Dram Shop" laws (O.R.C. 4399.02 et seq), which allow a person injured by an intoxicated bar patron to sue the bar, in certain circumstances.

Ohio Courts have also imposed so-called "social host liability" wherein someone injured by an intoxicated person who was served alcohol at a party can recover for their injuries against the host of the party.

Ohio's first social host liability case was Settlemyer v. Wilmington Veterans Post No. 49, which was decided by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1984. In Settlemyer, an intoxicated patron left the Wilmington Veterans Post and struck and killed a fellow motorist. The motorist's estate sued the Veterans Post under Ohio's Dram Shop Act, but appellate courts found that the Dram Shop Act wasn't applicable, since the Veterans Post didn't sell the intoxicated driver the alcohol, it provided the driver the alcohol for free.

The Ohio Supreme Court noted that Ohio's Dram Shop law doesn't provide the exclusive remedy against a liquor permit holder to recover damages for the death of a third party. The Court stated that a bar owes a duty to its patrons to protect them from the reasonably foreseeable violent acts of fellow patrons or third parties. Additionally, a can be liable to its own customer for the customer's injury or death if the bar continued to serve a fellow patron alcohol and the intoxication caused an assault or battery resulting in death.

Neither scenario was applicable to the Settlemyer facts, however, and the Court ruled that the Dram Shop law didn't apply since there was no sale of alcohol. In holding that it did not recognize a cause of action which would allow the third party to sue the Post for providing alcohol to an adult, the Court stated that "a commercial proprietor has a proprietary interest and profit motive, and should be expected to exercise greater supervision than in the non-commercial social setting. Moreover, a person in the business of selling and serving alcohol is usually better organized to control patrons, and has the financial wherewithal to do so. It is also reasonable to conclude that by virtue of its experience, the commercial proprietor is more familiar with its customers and their habits and capacities."

The Ohio Supreme Court would reach an opposite conclusion just four years later, when faced with a case involving a social host providing alcohol to a minor (Mitseff v. Wheeler). The minor, who also was served alcohol at a bar after leaving the social host's home, struck and killed a fellow motorist. The motorist's estate sued the bar and the social host. The Court, while noting that it denied recovery to a motorist who was killed by an adult who was served alcohol in a social setting in Settlemyer, stated that this case was different - here, the social host broke the law regarding providing alcohol to a minor, whereas in Settlemyer, no law was broken. Thus, the law regarding the furnishing of alcohol to a minor, which was broken, distinguished the case such that the Court ruled that a social host who provides alcohol to a minor can be held liable for death or injury to third-party injured or killed by the minor.

Two years following Mitseff, the Ohio Supreme Court further expanded the Mitseff decision in Huston v. Konieczny. In this case, Harry and Linda Cordell hosted New Year's Eve Party for their minor children. The parents gave their children permission to invite friends and to drink alcohol. The parents then left town. A partygoer, who was alleged to have consumed alcohol at the party, left and drove into a tree on his way home. His car was then struck by a fellow motorist, causing severe injuries.

The parents, citing Mitseff, argued that they shouldn't be held responsible, as they didn't actually provide the alcohol - they merely permitted its presence at the party. The Court, however, noted that Ohio has a long legal history of holding parents accountable for their failure to exercise proper responsibility over their child when the parents knows or should know that injury to another is a probable consequence. Furthermore, the Court noted that when a parent consents, directs or sanctions a child's wrongdoing, they may be held liable.

Finding that the Cordell parents authorized the furnishing of alcohol to minors in violation of Ohio law, it held the parents liable for the injuries suffered by the intoxicated partygoer.

Following these Court decisions, Ohio "social host" liability law allows recovery for death or injuries to (a) intoxicated minors who were served alcohol either personally by a social host or at a party a social host consented to, and (b) to a third-party who was killed or injured by a intoxicated minor that was served alcohol either personally by a social host or at a party a social host consented to. Ohio law denies recovery where a social host served an adult who later, in an intoxicated state, killed or injured a third party.

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