What is the parent’s legal liability in California for personal injuries when a teenage child throws a party at your house?

With four grown children, I’ve experienced the angst that all parents do when their teenage children go to a “party” at a friend’s house. And on the few occasions when I’ve left home for a weekend and left my older kids at home, I have felt that same uneasiness–even more so. The fact is, that despite our best intentions, and our children’s best intentions, drugs and alcohol are a part of the high school and college scene. There was a recent California Supreme Court case which addressed one of the legal issues that comes out of this social problem: Who is legally responsible when a teenager drinks alcohol at a party, and later drives and either injures or kills someone else. The answer may not be as simple as you think.

Here are the facts that were alleged in the case. A teenage girl threw a party at her parent’s vacant rental home. The parents did not know about the party, as is often he case when teenagers host a party. The kids publicized the party by word of mouth, telephone, texting, and other social media. When the guests began arriving, they would enter by a side gate, and pay an admission fee of $3 to $5 dollars to gain admittance to the party. Once inside the party, the guests were free to help themselves to beer, tequila and other drinks.

One of the guests, a underaged boy named Garcia, arrived in an intoxicated state around midnight. He paid the admission fee and entered the party. He had consumed at least four shots of whiskey before coming to the party, and other guests reported that he had been drinking at the party as well. He became rowdy and was asked to leave. As he left, one of Garcia’s friends spit on another youth, Ennabe. Ennabe, in turn chased the boy into the street. By this time, Garcia had gotten into his car to drive away. In the process of driving away, his car struck Ennabe causing him severe injuries which led to his death. The family brought suit for wrongful death against Garcia, the girl who threw the party, and her parents.

In the 1970’s, the California Supreme Court issued three separate legal opinions holding that commercial sellers of alcohol, such as bars and restaurants, and social hosts, such as a person hosting a party at their home, could be responsible when people whom they had provided alcohol to, later drove and injured someone. These cases held that the service of alcohol to an obviously intoxicated person by someone who knows that the drunk person intends to drive a car can be held liable for negligence.

In 1978 however, the California legislature passed a law which overturned these Supreme Court decisions. The law provided that no social host who provides alcohol to anyone shall be held legally responsible for damages suffered by that person, or for any injury to any third person caused by the consumption of the alcohol (Civil Code section 1714 (c)).

This statute is very broad and is subject to very limited exceptions. One of the exceptions is that if any person (social host) sells alcohol or causes it to be sold to an “obviously intoxicated” minor, that person may be held liable for injuries or death caused by the intoxicated driver (Business and Professions Code 25602.1; Ennabe v Manosa (2014) 58 Cal.4th 697). Another exception, is that a parent, guardian or other adult who knowingly provides beverages at his home to a person whom he knows or should know is under age 21, may be found liable for the negligent driving of the minor caused by the alcohol being provided (Civil Code 1714 (d)).

Based on these laws, the Supreme Court in the Ennabe case held that the daughter who hosted the party could be found liable for the death of the boy who was run over by Garcia. The court found that the requirement of an admission price could be considered the “selling” of alcohol. Since there was also evidence that Garcia was obviously intoxicated when the alcohol was “sold” to him, the host of the party, the teenage girl, could be held responsible for the death. The parents were held not to be liable by the trial court because there was no evidence that they were present at the party or knew that it was happening.

As a parent and as a personal injury lawyer in Alameda, I appreciate that underage drinking is a common social problem. Underage drinking and driving frequently result in serious injuries, and death. As a lawyer, unfortunately I have handled many cases where alcohol caused serious personal injuries or wrongful death. Drunk driving is one of the leading causes of death in our country. Although liability for personal injury claims or wrongful death is usually limited to the person who actually drinks and drives (as opposed to the person who furnishes the alcohol), there are exceptions. When a social host sells alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor, liability can be imposed on the social host. Where a parent or other adult provides alcohol to a minor in their home, liability can also be imposed.

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