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No Liability for Passengers That Liquored-Up Underage Driver

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 23, 2013 7:01 AM

Drunk driver? Don't blame the underage suppliers.

This is the tale of five young girls, who did what many under-21 girls do: convinced strangers at a liquor store to buy them booze and helped supply a house party. (Think McLovin' from Superbad, only slightly more feminine.) Once the fun finished, the fabulous five hopped into a car, and soon thereafter, plowed into a bicyclist, who was severely injured. Along with his wife, he sought to sue not only the driver, but the four young ladies who provided the party favors.

Unfortunately for him, the California State Legislature was quite explicit in expressing its feelings on the subject.

In the 1970s, state courts began eroding the common law defense against social host liability by first holding that a commercial vendor could be liable for over-serving, then by expanding liability to social hosts. The legislature, likely worried about their own galas, sprung to action and passed a law specifically rejecting the courts' decisions and restoring common law.

They followed that up with an amendment in 2010 that carved out a single exception to the "no liability" rule: an adult providing beverages at his or her residence to someone known to be under 21 can be held liable if that person's intoxication leads to injuries or death.

The bicycling plaintiff tried piggybacking claims against the four booze-toting passengers via a civil conspiracy, but the appeals court was unimpressed. Though the actual homeowner could be liable under the exception, the four ladies can't be wedged into the exception via conspiracy to furnish alcohol. After all, the statute explicitly states, "the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication."

The exception in the statute is, by definition, very narrow. Only those who provide alcohol at their residences to someone under 21 can be held liable. These girls were not at their residences. Without that exception, there is no proximate cause, and by extension, no liability - even with conspiracy theories.

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