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Melick & Porter Successfully Defends Claim Seeking Unreasonable Expansion of Social Host Liability

February 21, 2012

Massachusetts social host liability law from its origins has always focused upon the host’s service of alcohol or effective control over the supply of alcohol. In Juliano v. Simpson, 461 Mass. 527 (2012), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was asked to greatly expand social host liability to individuals who merely own or control the premises on which underage drinking occurs. Melick & Porter attorneys Andre Sansoucy, Christopher George and Robert Powers successfully defended Peter and Jessica Simpson against this claim. On February 21, 2012, the SJC affirmed the summary judgment we obtained for our clients, and reaffirmed that social liability should focus on supply and control of the alcohol, and not control of the property where the drinking took place. 

The Juliano case arose from a July 2, 2007 motor vehicle accident. Christian Dunbar, driving Rachel Juliano’s car, crashed into a utility pole while driving her home resulting in permanent brain injury. They were coming from the Simpson residence. Earlier in the evening both Christian and Rachel had driven to a liquor store where Christian purchased alcoholic beverages. They brought these beverages to a gathering at the Simpson home. Mr. Simpson was not home, and had no knowledge about the gathering. His nineteen year old daughter Jessica was home, and had his permission to have friends over. Mr. Simpson had clearly stated that there was to be no underage drinking in his home. Christian, Rachel and others brought their own alcohol to the gathering and consumed it. There was no evidence that either Jessica or Mr. Simpson provided, served, or made alcohol available to either Dunbar or Juliano. 

Rachel Juliano and her parents sued the Simpsons blaming them for the injuries sustained by Rachel and claiming that they should be held liable because they owned or controlled the property where the underage drinking had taken place. In 2000, the Massachusetts Legislature amended a criminal statute, G.L.c. 138, §34, making it illegal for anyone to knowingly permit an underage guest from consuming alcohol on property that person owns or controls. The Juliano’s claimed that this amendment was grounds for the Court to expand our social host common law.

Attorney Christopher George obtained summary judgment in the Superior Court on behalf of the Simpsons based on the longstanding social host principles established in McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986) and Ulwick v. DeChristopher, 411 Mass. 401 (1991). Under those decisions, a social host is not liable unless it provided alcohol to an intoxicated guest who is subsequently involved in a motor vehicle accident. The Juliano’s appealed this decision, and the Supreme Judicial Court accepted the case for direct review.

The appeal was argued to the Supreme Judicial Court in September 2011. Noting the serious problems created by underage drinking, the justices actively questioned the parameters of social host liability. Robert Powers argued that this was not a case for a dramatic expansion of social host liability. He emphasized that Peter Simpson was not home, did not supply alcohol to those involved, and had no knowledge that there was a gathering of young people at his home. He argued that society needs to be cautious about expanding social host liability to those who simply own or control property where underage drinking has occurred. He emphasized that parents and homeowners should not be subjected to the financial and emotional tolls of a lawsuit like this where they have nothing to do with supplying alcohol to underage drinkers.

It is important to understand that under a homeowners’ policy, an insurer may not have a duty to defend or indemnify an insured if a guest leaving a party causes a motor vehicle accident, giving rise to a social host lawsuit against the homeowner.   Insurance companies have been successful in removing its duty to indemnify homeowners based on the motor vehicle exclusion provisions in the homeowner’s policy. Mass. Prop. Ins. Underwriting Ass'n v. Berry, 80 Mass. App. Ct. 598 (2011) review denied, 461 Mass. 1106 (2012). Defending lawsuits of this nature is often lengthy, complex, and expensive because of the amount of discovery. The potential exposure is also significant because the injuries are usually catastrophic in nature. Parents who consider permitting their underage children to host drinking parties need to be aware of the criminal penalties and the potential civil ramifications.

As a result of the Court’s decision, social host liability remains predicated on the control of the alcohol source. On the facts presented, the Court reached the right result for sound reasons. The decision, however, should not be viewed a license to knowingly offer a place for underage drinkers to congregate. When it comes to underage drinking, and the tragedies that may result, adults and parents know better and owe minors a heightened duty of due care to protect them against immature decisions. Although hosting an underage drinking party may not give rise to a civil lawsuit, there remains a stiff criminal penalty which will be enforced by both the police and the courts. The penalties include up to a $2,000.00 fine and up to 1 year in jail.  G.L. c. 138, §34. In Commonwealth v. Kneram, 63 Mass.App.Ct. 371, 375 (2005), the Massachusetts Appeals Court interpreted this criminal statute to apply to anyone, regardless of whether they are of legal age to consume alcohol.

The Juliano decision is also likely not the last word on social host liability. The SJC has consistently stated that in the area of social host liability, cases should be taken one-by-one.  Justice Botsford‘s concurring opinion called upon the legislature to evaluate and change the laws in the next legislative session.  Justice Gants also authored a concurring opinion, stating that he would have left open the question of whether social host liability could apply if a person over the age of twenty-one had hosted the party.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about the Juliano decision or about social host liability in general, we welcome you to contact us.

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