Host with the Most … Liability

Hosting underage drinking is a bad idea in Ohio

If you’re thinking of hosting a party—and plan to be offering alcoholic beverages—it’s important to know that Ohio has a social host law aimed at preventing underage drinking. The law makes a host liable for damage caused, even if the underage consumption was on the sly but the host should have known about it.

Ohio law requires that an individual be 21 in order to legally consume alcohol (unless in the company of, and given express permission by, a parent). It is unlawful to provide alcohol someone under 21 or to allow consumption by someone under 21 on your property. To do so gives rise to both civil and criminal liability.

Cleveland criminal defense attorney Robert Walton describes a typical scenario: An 18-year-old is home from college for the holidays and wants to host a party with friends at his parents’ home. The parents give the OK, knowing that drinking will likely occur with people under 21 present, and wanting to keep everyone safe, they say no one can leave the house. They may provide alcohol—or just know that it’s there—giving rise to criminal liability under Ohio law.

Say the parents allow the young adults to hang out, but don’t approve drinking in the house. Some additional friends come by with six-packs in their backpacks, and the parents don’t know anything until they come down to the basement to check in and find beer cans, which may or may not be opened. “Even if the parent didn’t furnish the beer, the parent can be held criminally responsible once they’re aware,” says Walton. “The standard is that they know that a person under 21 is possessing or consuming and they allow the kid to remain on the premises.”

This gives rise to a conundrum:  If the parents allow an underage drinker to remain on their property, they can be liable. But sending away someone whom they know has been drinking is dangerous. For the parent facing such a dilemma, Walton suggests a couple of options: “First, I’d call a parent, if there was one to call, have them come and get their kid. If no parents are available, I would demand that the kids all give up their car keys and confiscate all of the alcohol. That way, you have some ability to show that you didn’t allow them to remain on the premises with possession of alcohol.”

If you’re charged criminally in a social-host situation, both furnishing alcohol and knowingly allowing underage drinking are first degree misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $1000 fine. Walton says most people don’t end up going to jail, but they can still face a criminal conviction.

He adds that social host civil liability can be worse. Say the parents have discovered that underage drinking is happening in their house, and make the drinking friend leave. “The friend gets in his car,” says Walton, “and a mile down the road he hits a bus full of nuns. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that social hosts can be held liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated underage driver to a third party if a parent furnished the alcohol, or consented or knew of consumption of alcohol.”

What’s more, you could be liable for injuries an intoxicated person causes to his or herself. “Typically, a drunk person can’t benefit from his stupidity by suing the person who allowed him to get intoxicated,” Walton says. “But a social host can be responsible for injuries suffered by an intoxicated underage drinker if the injuries occurred as a result of the intoxication, whether on or off the host premises. A host could be held liable even where the kid essentially caused their own injury.”

If you have questions regarding social host criminal liability, talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney or, regarding civil liability, an experienced personal injury attorney. For more information on this area of law, see our overviews of drug and alcohol violations and premises liability.

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