Thursday, July 7, 2016

Social Hosts, Not Commercial Hosts, Liable for Alcohol-Related Injuries to Third Parties. For Now?

On June 5, 2016, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a joint opinion, Manal Kiriakos v. Brandon Phillips ( No. 20, September Term, 2015) and Nancy Dankos, et al. v. Linda Stapf (No. 55, September Term, 2015) (hereinafter “Kiriakos”), on two cases involving civil liability for conduct violating Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law § 10-117, sometimes called “social host” statute.  Section 10-117 prohibits an adult from either providing alcohol to a person under the age of 21 or hosting a social event at their residence in which they are aware that underaged persons are drinking.  In Kiriakos, the Court held that an individual that “knowingly and wilfully” violates § 10-117 can face civil liability for injuries related to their complicity in permitting underaged persons to drink in their homes.

The holding in Kiriakos is a stark departure from the common law concept that an intoxicated person’s injury is almost always of his or her own making and directly traceable to their decision to drink rather than the actions of another in serving them alcohol.  State v. Hatfield, 197 Md. 249, 78 A.2d 754 (1951). Moreover, the holding reignites the debate surrounding Maryland’s longstanding opposition to “dram shop liability”: the imposition of a civil liability against the seller of alcoholic beverages for personal injury caused by an intoxicated customer. 

“Dram shop” is an archaic term for taverns and bars that sold hard alcohol by the dram—an antiquated unit of fluid measurement, equivalent to one-eighth of a liquid ounce. Two years ago in William J. Warr, Jr., et al. v. JMGM Group, LLC, d/b/a Dogfish Head Alehouse, 433 Md. 170, 70 A.3d 347 (2013), the Court of Appeals once again rejected an attempt to impose “dram shop liability” against a tavern owner for the off-site conduct of an intoxicated patron, who was involved in a drunk driving accident that killed a young woman.  The Court in Warr reaffirmed the common law concept expressed in Hatfield, finding that absent a special relationship, “the tavern does not owe a duty to the injured party to prevent the harm caused by the intoxicated patron . . .  Human beings, drunk or sober, are responsible for their own torts.” Id., quoting Hatfield, surpa, at 254, 78 A.2d at 756.

The facts of one of the cases decided by the Kiriakos Court appear to call into question whether the opinions in Hatfield and Warr, and holdings like them, will continue to hold sway.  In Nancy Dankos, et al. v. Linda Stapf, a 17-year-old Steven Dankos spent the evening drinking at the house of Linda Stapf, which was known to her underage son Kevin’s friends as a "party house" where minors could drink almost every weekend. In fact, Ms. Stapf was home during the party at which Steven was drinking, and fully aware that minors were consuming alcohol in her garage late into the night. Steven left the residence early the next morning by catching a ride in the pickup truck-bed of 22-year old intoxicated partygoer David Erdman. Erdman crashed his truck and Steven was ejected from the bed and killed.

Although Erdman was of legal drinking age and Steven was not provided alcohol by Stapf, the Court of Appeals rejected Stapf’s attempts to obtain a dismissal by utilizing arguments against liability similar to those used in the dram shop cases.  Instead, the Court concluded that “by permitting and condoning [Steven’s] consumption of alcohol, Defendant Stapf prevented [him] from making an intelligent and informed decision about getting into a vehicle with a drunk driver, David Erdman, and riding in the bed of the truck.”    

Although limited in scope—Kiriakos specifically deals with violations of Crim Law § 10-117, discussed above—the Court’s decision is a clear departure from the concepts underpinning Maryland’s refusal to recognize dram shop liability. Perhaps the reason for this departure can be partly explained by the leanings of the author of Kiriakos, Judge Sally Adkins, who notably disagreed with the Court’s ruling in Warr, supra, writing a 64-page dissent eviscerating Maryland’s dram shop history. While the Court in Kiriakos distinguished “social host” liability from dram shop liability because the former involves violation of a statute designed to protect minors from adult complicity in underaged drinking, it is perhaps only a matter of time before the right case involving underage drinking at a commercial establishment comes along to further degrade Maryland’s dram shop precedent. Judge Adkins is likely waiting with pen in hand.

-       Jessica P. Butkera