Can I Be Held Liable for Overserving a Party Guest?


Even though it might be hard to believe, the year is almost over. Holiday gatherings, such as Christmas parties, are in full swing, and New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. With that in mind, it’s more important than ever that anyone who is hosting a holiday party, even just a small gathering for family and friends, knows the ins and outs of social host liability law and things party hosts can do to prevent guests from drinking too much alcohol.

How Do Dram Shop and Social Host Liability Work in Washington?

Social host liability and dram shop liability are both laws that cover third-party liability claims. In the case of dram shop liability, alcohol vendors who either serve alcohol to a minor at all or continue serving alcohol to an adult who is clearly over-intoxicated (slurred speech, trouble walking), can be held liable through a personal injury lawsuit if the minor or adult they served alcohol to injures others while intoxicated.

For example, if the minor or adult leaves the bar or restaurant where they were served alcohol and causes a car accident that injures others, those who were injured may be able to file a dram shop lawsuit against the restaurant or bar for serving alcohol to a minor or for continuing to serve alcohol to an adult who was obviously over-intoxicated. (This would be in addition to criminal charges the vendor could face for serving alcohol to a minor. Also, the minor or adult who caused the accident could possibly face criminal charges for drinking and driving and a civil lawsuit for causing the accident that injured the victims.)

Unlike dram shop liability, social host liability never involves a licensed alcohol vendor. Instead, social host liability involves private party hosts, like family members, friends, or co-workers hosting parties for other family members, friends, and co-workers. In addition, in Washington, social host liability only includes incidents where a social host served alcohol to a minor. For the most part, in Washington, a social host cannot be held liable for continuing to serve alcohol to an adult guest who is over-intoxicated and later causes an accident that injures others.

An example of social host liability would be if an adult friend or family member named Derek was hosting a party and a friend or family member under 21 named Alice, who was attending the gathering, was allowed to drink alcohol. If Alice then goes on to injure someone in a car accident after leaving the party, or even causes some other type of injury accident, such as accidentally causing someone to fall and hurt themselves while still at the party, then the person or people Alice injured may be able to file a social host liability lawsuit against Derek. (This would be in addition to possibly being able to file a personal injury lawsuit against Alice for injuring them, criminal charges Alice might face for driving while intoxicated, and criminal charges Derek could face for serving alcohol to a minor.)

Tips for Keeping Party Guests Safe

For anyone who hosts a gathering of any kind, one of the top priorities should be keeping everyone safe throughout the event as best you can and doing everything possible to make sure everybody gets back home safely after they leave. This is no easy task. To make it a little less difficult, here are a few tips for how to keep party guests safe at your next gathering:

  • Get a professional bartender – Professional bartenders are usually trained to recognize when someone has had too much to drink and are more likely to stop serving people who are too intoxicated before things get out of hand.
  • Don’t pressure a party guest to drink – Peer pressure is powerful and can lead to overconsumption of alcohol in certain situations. An example of peer pressure in this case can be directly and/or repeatedly encouraging someone to have a drink (especially if they initially decline). Other examples can include doing things that are traditionally seen as “just being a good host,” like rushing to refill a guest’s drink after they finish it or serving someone alcohol even though they appear to be too intoxicated to have another drink just because they requested a refill.
  • Cut off drinking near the end of the festivities – As the party is winding down, or even a little before that, stop serving alcohol and begin serving water, soda, tea, and coffee, so that guests can sober up before they leave.
  • Know how your state handles social host liability – Laws vary from state to state. Whatever state your party is happening in, research whether there are social host liability laws in that state, and if the state has dram shop or social host liability laws, research what they are and how they could impact you and your guests if you host a gathering.
  • If possible, make sure your guests have a designated driver – You and your guests planning to have designated drivers can save everyone involved a lot of headaches and lead to a safer time for all. Reach out to your guests prior to the party and ask them to choose designated drivers from amongst the group who will not drink during the event so that they will be sober and able to drive guests who have been drinking home after the party.
  • Serve food and have non-alcoholic beverage options – Eating food and drinking water or other types of non-alcoholic drinks can help prevent people from drinking too much alcohol and/or getting too intoxicated from the alcoholic beverages they drink.
  • Call a ride for guests who shouldn’t drive – If a party guest is drunk or even just tired, call them a cab, get them a ride from a sober guest, order them a ride from a rideshare service, drive them home yourself, or even let them sleep at your place for the evening. Bottom line, do everything you can to keep them from driving drunk or driving drowsy.
  • Limit how much you and any co-hosts drink – If you and/or your fellow hosts are drunk, you will not be able to properly judge if any of your guests are too drunk to drive.
  • Avoid holding the gathering at your home if possible – If you have your party at a bar or restaurant that has a liquor license, it can help limit your social host liability regarding alcohol-related incidents involving your guests.

If you have questions about the legal fallout from overserving alcohol to a party guest or other social host liability and dram shop issues, our legal team at Hester Law Group has over 130 years of combined experience helping clients understand and overcome legal hurdles in a wide range of practice areas, including social host and dram shop liability.

Hester Law Group offers complimentary consultations. Give us a call at (253) 300-3034 or fill out an online contact form today to schedule a time to talk with us about your situation and how we may be able to help you.

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