Every holiday season brings news reports of terrible accidents involving alcohol, holiday parties, and drivers. Many businesses are eliminating or curtailing the service of alcohol at their holiday parties, often out of fear of liability. Yet hosts of social gatherings seem relatively unconcerned about possible liability, even when they hold large parties where alcoholic beverages are freely available. Yet, based on the current state of the law in Massachusetts, the business should probably be a little less concerned–while social hosts should be a little more worried.
Fifty years ago, most jurisdictions placed the blame for alcohol-related road injuries solely on the intoxicated driver, and not on the supplier of the alcohol. Gradually, this rule changed to commercial license holders, so that a bartender who served an intoxicated or underage patron would be liable for the injuries caused by the customer. Over the years, many states, including Massachusetts, expanded this liability to so-called “social hosts”–hosts of social gatherings. The basic principle in Massachusetts, established in McGuiggan v. New England Telephone, is that a social host is liable for injuries caused by the negligence of an intoxicated guest only if the host served alcohol to the guest, or otherwise controlled the access of the guest to the supply of alcohol.
Since McGuiggan was decided in 1986, the Massachusetts courts have resisted most calls to expand the liability. Thus, the courts have generally found that social hosts have no obligation to prevent guests from bringing and consuming their own beverages, and no liability when they leave and drive drunk. This is still true today, even where the drinkers are underaged, and even where the parent is home and aware that alcohol is being consumed. However, hosts who supply their guests with alcohol need to be concerned. As difficult as it may be, particularly with good friends and/or large parties, the host faces liability that could be significant–and that may not be covered by some homeowners’ insurance policies.
The same rules generally apply to employers who host parties: the employer is liable only if it provides or controls the supply of alcohol. So an employer is not liable if an employee becomes intoxicated at a party held at a restaurant with a cash bar, because the employer can’t control the restaurant’s service of alcohol. On the other hand, an employer that provides alcohol for a party on its premises will be liable in the same manner as any other social host who serves his guests. The more difficult situations are where the employer provides alcohol through an intermediary–a caterer or an open bar at a restaurant. The more control the employer has over the situation, the more likely it will be responsible for the negligence of its intoxicated employees.