Summer is typically the time for barbecues, get-togethers and parties. Around this time, a lot of my clients ask me whether or not they can be responsible for serving alcohol to their guests. The short answer in the State of New Jersey is “yes.” New Jersey has a “social host” liability statute (N.J.S.A. 2A: 15-5.6) which allows people to sue for property damage or personal injury caused by an intoxicated individual who was served alcohol at your home. Accordingly, we all must be aware of this law, its parameters and when to stop serving alcohol to our friends, relatives and guests.
Pursuant to the above referenced statute, a “social host” will be responsible for injuries or property damage caused by an intoxicated person’s operation of a vehicle after the intoxicated person was served alcohol by the “social host.” However, a “social host” will only be responsible for that intoxicated person’s actions if it can be proven that the “social host” served alcohol to that intoxicated person at a time when that person was “visibly intoxicated.” Thus, if, at one of your parties, you serve alcohol or allow the consumption of alcohol by a person who is “visibly intoxicated,” you will be responsible for any injuries and/or property damage caused by that intoxicated person resulting from their operation of a motor vehicle. Accordingly, it is important to try to more readily define “visible intoxication.”
Unfortunately, the term “visible intoxication” is somewhat subjective in nature and may differ from person to person. However, some signs of visible intoxication that may be offered as proof at the time of a lawsuit will include, but are not limited to, the slurring of speech, staggering, loud boisterous behavior, bloodshot eyes, inappropriate behavior, strong odor of alcohol, etc. Therefore, it is suggested that, in the event one of your guests begin exhibiting one or all of these signs at your home, you immediately stop serving them alcohol. Further, to protect yourself from liability and for the safety of the public in general, it is also recommended that any such individuals exhibiting these signs not be allowed to drive.
It should be pointed out that, although “visible intoxication” is rather subjective, the statute provides some guidance. If it is determined that an individual’s blood alcohol content was less than .10% at the time you served them their last alcoholic beverage, you cannot be responsible for their behavior. Further, the statute indicates that if an individual’s blood alcohol content was between .10% and .15%, there is a presumption that the “social host” did serve that person at a time that they were visibly intoxicated. However, this presumption may be overcome by the “social host” by competent evidence (i.e.-witnesses, etc.).
Please note, however, that the analysis set forth above is with respect to the service of alcohol to adults (individuals over the age of 21 years old) and does not apply to the service of alcohol to minors. The service of alcohol to minors should never be undertaken in a social setting due to the fact that it could give rise to criminal liability as well as civil liability for instances where that minor may injure someone else regardless of whether or not the use of a motor vehicle is involved.
The bottom line is that we all must pay attention to our guests when we are serving alcohol at a social event to ensure that alcohol is not provided to those who may fit one of the above referenced criteria.