Social hosts off the hook for drunk drivers in Missouri and Illinois

Seventeen-year-old Pennsylvanian Zack Nelson was killed in a car accident when the 17-year-old drunken driver of the car he was in crashed head on into a tree. The driver, 17-year-old Steven DiCenzo had been drinking with Zack and several other teenagers at the home of a friend, Paige Hardy. Steven lost control of his car around a curve and hit a tree, ejecting Zack from the vehicle. Officers determined Steven's blood-alcohol content was approximately 0.136 percent.

Zack Nelson's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Steven DiCenzo, Paige Hardy, the resort where the accident occurred (for improper road design) and Paige's father, millionaire Joseph Hardy III. The suit alleges that Joseph Hardy knew of and allowed his daughter to host teenage parties involving "alcohol that was readily available, unsecured and unguarded at their common home." They claim Mr. Hardy was home when the teens started to arrive, knew Paige would give them alcohol and "did not lift a finger to stop that from happening."

The Nelsons are asking a court to find Mr. Hardy liable on the theory of negligence and social host liability. Many states have social host liability laws, which hold private parties responsible for damages, injuries or deaths caused by the minor or obviously intoxicated adult to whom the social host provided alcohol. Social host liability provides another pocket from which an injured party can collect compensation.

Social host liability is closely related to laws of dram shop liability. Under state dram shop laws, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other establishments are held responsible for over-serving patrons alcohol if those patrons cause damage, injury or death while still intoxicated. The idea behind dram shop laws is that someone profiting from selling alcohol should share in the responsibility. Like social host liability, dram shop liability provides another source of recovery to injured parties.

Illinois and Missouri do not recognize social host liability. The Illinois Supreme Court held that the state's Dram Shop Act is the only way to recover against an alcohol provider for an intoxicated person's destructive actions. However, the Act applies only to individuals licensed to sell alcohol that intoxicates third parties. It does not apply to a social host that provided alcohol "to a friend as a mere act of courtesy and politeness." Nevertheless, negligence lawsuits are always available.

The Missouri Supreme Court has similarly held that social hosts do not fall within the ambit of the state's dram shop statute. It said holding social hosts liable would have a "substantial impact on . . . everyday social and family affairs." The court went on to reason that social hosts have no financial incentive to encourage a guest to drink more, they lack the expertise to determine how much a guest has drank and they lack the same insurance coverage a vendor has against a dram shop type lawsuit.

Holding alcohol providers liable can be extremely difficult. If you or a loved one has been injured or killed by a drunk driver in Missouri or Illinois, contact an experienced attorney to discuss your situation and your options.