BoozeIt happens more than it should. Someone (here we will call her Ms. H.) invites some friends, maybe a lot of friends and maybe their friends as well, to a social gathering, where food and drink, lots of drink, is provided. Something bad happens, either to one of the guests at the party, or maybe to a member of the driving public on the way home.

When is a social host potentially legally responsible to one who is injured as a result of something happening (usually alcohol consumption) at a private party?

While the possibilities that might arise are many and varied, there are three basic rules that have evolved under California statutory and case law to govern these circumstances.

I. A Social Host Is Usually Not Liable For Furnishing Alcohol To A Guest Who Later Drives While Intoxicated, And Injures Another.

Since 1978, California law, by Civ. Code, § 1714 has held: “(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.”

The exception is: “…(d)(1) 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 whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be 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.”

So, unless Ms. H. knowingly furnished alcohol to a minor, she cannot be found legally responsible for injuries sustained by another due to a social guest’s drunk driving after drinking alcoholic beverages at her party.

II. A Social Host Is Not Liable For A Guest’s Assault Upon Another Guest, Where She Made An Open-Ended Party Invitation On Social Media.

In Melton v. Boustred (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 521, the defendant prevailed on appeal after the sustaining of a demurer below on the issue of duty. The reviewing court concluded that a property owner owed no duty to a party guest assaulted at his home after the owner had made: “an unlimited, unrestricted and widely broadcast’ invitation to a party at his home, which was ‘to include music and alcohol consumption.” Id. at 533.

In finding no legal responsibility of the host to the guest, the court, 83 Cal.App.4th at 537, focused on “Defendant’s lack of knowledge” of risks that someone would be assaulted at the party. So if Ms. H. invited lots of friends, and friends of friends, and something unexpected happens, she likely bears no legal responsibility to the victim for the violent acts of a guest.

III. A Social Host May Be Potentially Liable For An Invited Guest’s Assault Upon Another Guest If The Host Was Aware Of The Guest’s Violent, Assaultive Propensities.

This office recently handled a case where the Complaint alleged that, at the time the Assailant guest was invited to the party:

Defendant knew (and/or must have known) that guest [Assailant] had criminal propensities: in particular, Defendant knew full well, based on personal knowledge and reports from others, that Juan [Assailant] had, on at least two occasions, violently assaulted guests at similar social functions, while consuming alcoholic beverages, causing physical injury to such persons.”

The host demurred, asserting that he owed no legal duty to the Plaintiff, another guest who had been beaten by the invited Assailant at the host’s party, while the Assailant was intoxicated.

On behalf of Plaintiff, we cited several appellate authorities. Weirum v. RKO General, Inc. (1975) 15 Cal.3d 40, 49 states that one can owe a legal duty to another when one worsens the victim’s situation: “Misfeasance exists when the defendant is responsible for making the plaintiff’s position worse, i.e., defendant has created a risk. Conversely, nonfeasance is found when the defendant has failed to aid plaintiff through beneficial intervention.…[L]iability for nonfeasance is largely limited to those circumstances in which some special relationship can be established. If, on the other hand, the act complained of is one of misfeasance, the question of duty is governed by the standards of ordinary care discussed above.”

In Pamela L. v. Farmer (1980) 112 Cal.App.3d 206, 209, an alleged molester’s wife had invited children to play in her swimming pool while she was gone and her husband was at home. She did so, even though she knew that her husband had molested women and children in the past. The plaintiff minor in Pamela L. specifically pleaded the defendant wife’s actual knowledge of her husband’s criminal propensities, pleading that the wife: “knew that [her husband] intended to commit sexual acts with said children on said premises if not prevented therefrom and knew that serious danger of sexual misconduct by her husband… on said children would occur unless said defendant … warned said plaintiff children and their parents….” Pamela L., 112 Cal.App.3d at 208. The trial court ruled for defendant, sustaining the demurrer on the issue of duty.

But the reviewing court reversed, stating at page 209 (emphasis added):

“Respondent cites the principle that generally a person has no duty to control the conduct of a third person, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct, in the absence of a ‘special relationship’ either to the third person or to the victim. [Citations omitted.] However, this rule is based on the concept that a person should not be liable for ‘nonfeasance’ in failing to act as a ‘good Samaritan.’ It has no application where the defendant, through his or her own action (misfeasance) has made the plaintiff’s position worse and has created a foreseeable risk of harm from the third person. In such cases the question of duty is governed by the standards of ordinary care. (Weirum v. R. K. O. General, Inc., 15 Cal.3d 40, 49…).”

The court in Pamela L. then stated: “Here respondent did not merely fail to prevent harm to plaintiffs from [her husband]. Respondent by her own acts increased the risk of such harm occurring.” Pamela L., 112 Cal.App.3d at 211, emphasis added. Therefore, the court reversed the demurrer grant, holding that plaintiff had properly alleged misfeasance.

The court in our case agreed that a potential cause of action had been stated, and a legal duty had been alleged, because we had alleged the host’s “actual knowledge” of the Assailant’s violent propensities, upon consuming alcohol at social events. Unlike the “open invitation” in Melton v. Boustred (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 521, the court found that here there was no open, “unrestricted” party invitation. Instead, Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged an invitation to a particular guest with known violent propensities, including two prior occasions of assault at social functions involving alcohol.

The court cited another appellate case, Romero v. Superior Court (2001) 89 Cal.App.4th 1068. It found that this case also supports the conclusion of potential liability, even though it was a case that found no legal duty, under different facts. There, a minor guest was invited to the defendant’s home. The Romero Court found no duty by the host to prevent a sexual assault by another invited guest because: “there is no evidence from which the trier of fact could find that the Romeros had prior actual knowledge of Joseph’s [the Assailant’s] propensity to sexually assault female minors.” Id. at 1080 (emphasis added).

So that is the applicable distinction: Ms. H. might be liable to a victim of an invited guest’s assault at the party if she knew of that guest’s violent propensities when she invited him. Of course, her potential liability to the victim is not “automatic:” these court rulings simply mean that, if Ms. H’s actual knowledge of the Assailant’s violent propensities is shown at trial, a jury has the discretion to determine that she violated her duty of due care to other guests when she invited the Assailant. Weirum v. RKO General, Inc. (1975) 15 Cal.3d 40, 49.

The message to hosts and hostesses in California is: don’t invite the 500 pound gorilla, the person you know to be violent in social situations when alcohol is involved, to your party. If you do, you bear potential legal liability for his foreseeable actions, which might include some pretty bad things.

Photo credit: David Levinson (Creative Commons)
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Ralph Jacobson, a Stanford Law alumnus, has focused on personal injury law for over 30 years. With numerous articles in the CEB Civil Litigation Reporter, one of which was cited by the California Supreme Court, his expertise is well-recognized. Ralph has consulted for Bancroft Whitney on its California Civil Practice Series and lectured extensively on personal injury law. He’s a co-author of California Government Tort Liability Practice and a member of both the Alameda and Contra Costa County Bar Associations, now serving as counsel to the firm.