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What is social host liability?

When you attend a party at someone else’s house, you may wonder who is responsible if something goes wrong. In New Hampshire, social hosts have a duty to pay attention to how much alcohol a guest is drinking, and make sure that the person is old enough to drink under New Hampshire state law. The New Hampshire Supreme Court established this duty, called social host liability in the case Hickingbotham v. Burke. Peter M. Solomon and Thomas J. Corcoran successfully argued the case before the court in 1995.

Facts of Hickingbotham v. Burke

Joseph Hickingbotham attended a Halloween party hosted by Bonnie Burke and Mark Vemullan in 1990. They gave him alcohol throughout the night, even though they should have known he was under the age of 21. Hickingbotham continued to drink, then attempted to drive home. He ended up having a car accident, and sued Burke and Vemullan for damages. He alleged they had a duty to monitor the drinking happening at their party based on the state law regarding serving alcohol to minors or to a person already intoxicated.

Were the hosts negligent?

At the time of the case, the law regarding serving alcohol to minors did not allow for someone to sue the hosts for negligence because they violated that law. Instead, the court said common law negligence rules should apply. The court had made similar decisions when the host was a bar or restaurant that sold liquor under a liquor license. The court decided that if the person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) can show that the host was reckless when he or she served the alcohol, the plaintiff can prevail.

The court considered the fact that Hickingbotham was a minor at the time of the party as evidence that the hosts were reckless in his case. Although the state law about serving minors was not a basis for the lawsuit, it could be used as proof of negligence. In the end, a jury would have to weigh each social host liability case to decide if the social host was reckless.

What is the law today?

Hickingbotham v. Burke still stands today. Guests injured by drinking can hold social hosts accountable if they can prove the host recklessly served alcohol. The court has since extended the finding to third parties injured by the drinking. They only need to prove the host was negligent. For example, if Hickingbotham had hit another driver on his way home from the Halloween party, that driver could also sue the host. In addition, New Hampshire has criminal penalties for social hosts who serve alcohol to someone under 21.

If a drunk driver injures you while he or she is leaving a party, the driver may not be the only person liable for your injuries. You should consider whether social host liability applies to your case.

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