DA: Ruling applies to civil cases

Teen drinking hosts can still face criminal charges

By Ethan Forman Staff writer

SALEM — A ruling by the state’s highest court does not mean “it’s a new day” for hosts of teen drinking parties, who can still face criminal charges even if they do not buy the alcohol, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said.

However, it’s another matter when it comes to hosts being sued in civil court.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court refused “to expand the common-law duty of social hosts” when it comes to cases in which an underage person hosts a drinking party, someone else brings his or her own booze, then that person drives drunk and injures someone else.

The ruling means that underage hosts who do not supply alcohol cannot be held civilly liable if one of their guests gets hurt.

“It really doesn’t change anything that we do,” Blodgett said of the ruling, which does not pertain to criminal cases.

The state’s social host liability law says that whoever furnishes alcohol to someone under 21 can face a $2,000 fine, a year in jail or both if charged criminally.

“The word ‘furnish’ shall mean to knowingly or intentionally supply, give or provide to, or allow a person under 21 years of age … to possess alcoholic beverages on premises or property owned or controlled by the person charged,” according to the statute, which is spelled out in the Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion.

The case in question dates back to a 2007 incident in which a 19-year-old woman provided the house, but not the 30-pack of beer or bottle of rum, according to the opinion. The young man who bought the liquor at a package store brought it to the party, consumed it and later tried to drive a 16-year-old girl home. She was seriously injured when his vehicle hit a pole a short time later.

The girl and her parents sued the underage host and her father, who was not home at the time. A lower court dismissed the case against the host and her father, and the high court affirmed that ruling, according to the opinion.

“It does not mean it’s a new day as it pertains to social host liability,” Blodgett said. “There shouldn’t be a false sense of security and going back to the bad old days.”

In its ruling, the state’s highest court reaffirmed that “liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol,” according to the unanimous opinion written by Supreme Judicial Court Justice Fernande Duffly.

Blodgett said that under the state’s tough social host liability law, a teenager who invites over friends who bring booze could face criminal charges. Adults who allow a party at their home could also face charges even if they do not supply the liquor.

“From my perspective as DA, this is not an invitation to engage in reckless activity,” Blodgett said.

“What the court is saying here is there should be a legislative fix to this matter,” said Blodgett, who said it would be up to lawmakers to craft a way to expand social host liability to civil cases.

Although the host involved in the 2007 incident was not charged criminally, it came out during court proceedings that she “potentially could have been.”

Blodgett said he will continue to speak on the matter when invited to do so at schools on the North Shore and around Essex County, including Danvers High and St. John’s Prep. In fact, the attorney for the plaintiff in this case, Richard Campbell, works closely with Blodgett when it comes to educating the public about social host liability and consequences of adults hosting underage drinking parties.

“We are just trying to keep kids safe,” Blodgett said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter @DanverSalemNews.