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Potential Liability for Supplying and Serving Alcohol โ€“ Social Host Liability in Pennsylvania

By Lisa Cauley, Esquire

Many individuals and businesses in Pennsylvania question whether they may be held liable if they serve alcohol to a person who later injures himself or others. In some states, a “social host” may be liable for resulting personal injury or property damages if the social host served alcohol to a person when he know or should have known the person was intoxicated and/or when he knew the person would be driving afterward. These laws are referred to as “Dram Shop” Acts, and enable injured third parties to recover damages from the alcohol supplier. The term “social host” may be defined, depending upon the state, to include anyone who hosts a social gathering, including private individuals, employers and organizations.

Pennsylvania has its own Dram Shop Act. However, this law applies only to retailers licensed by the Liquor Control Board, and does not apply to social hosts who provide alcohol to persons over the age of 21. To date, Pennsylvania court decisions have not held a social host liable for injuries caused by his or her guest over 21, even if the host served a guest who was visibly intoxicated. This result is premised on the idea that adults are responsible for the consequences of their own drinking. See Klein v. Raysinger, 470 A.2d 507 (Pa. 1983). Courts have rejected efforts to expand social host liability to company or employer- sponsored functions, holding that only licensed persons engaged in the sale of intoxicants have been held to be civilly liable to injured parties. Manning v. Andy, 310 A.2d 75 (Pa. 1973).

Pennsylvania law does permit recovery of damages from a host who “knowingly serves” alcohol to the point of intoxication to a person under 21 years of age where someone is subsequently injured as a result of the minor’s negligence. See Congini v. Portersville Valve Co. , 470 A.2d 515 (Pa. 1983). The potential imposition of liability for serving alcohol to minors represents a significant risk to student organizations, and the affiliated educational institutions. However, Pennsylvania courts have also resisted efforts to expand liability in this arena: specifically, courts have refused to impute liability to an adult or organization which “should have known” alcohol was being served to a minor on the adult’s or organization’s property. See Alumni Ass’n v. Sullivan, 572 A.2d 1209 (Pa. 1990). In Alumni, the Supreme Court found no social host liability by the university or fraternity organization where those defendants were not involved in the planning of an event or the serving, supplying, or purchasing of the liquor. Id. Likewise, the Superior Court has rejected an attempt to impose liability on parents for the "perfectly mundane" event of storing alcohol in their home in an unlocked area, despite the fact that they knew that minors would gather there and might access the alcohol. Winwood v. Bregman, 788 A.2d 983 (Pa. Super. 2001). In addition, the Court has held that a minor does not owe a duty to another minor regarding the furnishing of alcohol, Kapres v. Heller, 640 A.2d 888 (Pa. 1994), and that a minor who furnishes alcohol to another minor is not liable to third-parties injured by the intoxicated minor. Sperando v. Commonwealth, D.O.T., 643 A.2d 1079 (Pa. 1994). The Superior Court has also recognized that an adult passenger does not owe a duty to a third-person where the driver of the vehicle in which he is riding is intoxicated. Clayton v. McCullough, 670 A.2d 710 (Pa. Super. 1996).

While the common law is always subject to change over time, absent action by the legislature, Pennsylvania courts have resisted expanding social host liability or the Dram Shop Act beyond their current parameters.