Stop the Party! Social Host Laws Put Parents on the Hook

November 26, 2012

The holidays are filled with family and friends, eggnog, and stories. But here’s a story you don’t want to hear during the upcoming holiday season: Two parents let their high school-age kids and friends party on their property and allowed the kids to drink alcohol. After leaving the party, one of the underage drinkers drove her vehicle into oncoming traffic and collided with another vehicle. The young driver was exposed to potential criminal charges for injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle and operating while intoxicated. The scary part for the parents? They were put on the hook for civil liability for allowing underage guests to drink alcohol on their property and for injuries caused by the intoxicated driver.

In Wisconsin, social hosts can be forced to pay fines if they knowingly provide alcohol to underage guests. Section 125.07 of the Wisconsin Statutes states that no adult may “procure for, sell, dispense, or give away any alcohol beverages to any underage persons not accompanied by his or her parent.” In addition, no adult “may knowingly permit or fail to take action to prevent the illegal consumption of alcoholic beverages by an underage person on premises owned by the adult or under the adult’s control.” In short, an adult cannot supply booze to someone else’s kid or allow kids to drink on their property without their parents close-by.

The consequences for supplying alcohol to kids are harsh, too. For a first offense, a person is required to forfeit up to $500. For a second offense, the person faces up to a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. The penalties keep going up from there.

But the worst part is facing a potential lawsuit for injuries that a drunken kid committed after he or she left your party for under-agers. A social host faces civil liability if he or she serves alcohol to underage guests who then get drunk and cause an injury. A lawsuit for injuries caused by an intoxicated minor can expose a social host to hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential liability. And worse yet, your homeowners’ insurance may not cover injuries caused by intoxicated minors.

Hosts should keep in mind that there may be liability even if the underage drinker is not “drunk.” A minor is considered under the influence if he or she is operating a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level greater than .00. So simply trying to gauge if the underage drinker seems safe to drive will not provide the host with legal protection if he or she drives away and causes injury.

Serving kids alcohol and letting them drink on your property has some severe consequences, especially if someone gets hurt. A social host and members of their family in that situation can face criminal charges, fines, and civil lawsuits. Use this story as a warning this holiday season: Keep the “eggnog” with the adults.

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For more information about "Stop the Party! Social Host Laws Put Parents on the Hook," contact Tyler K. Wilkinson at twilkinson@axley.com or 608.283.6783.