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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 homeowner liable for damage caused, even if the underage consumption was on the sly but the party 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 to 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.

Liability Risks

Cleveland criminal defense attorney Robert Walton describes a typical scenario: An 18-year-old is home from college and wants to host a holiday party with friends at his parents’ home. The parents give the OK, knowing that drinking will likely occur with people under 21 present. 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 an intoxicated guest is dangerous, especially without a designated driver. 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.”

Social Host Liability Laws

Criminal charges in a social-host situation include furnishing alcohol and knowingly allowing underage drinking, both first degree misdemeanors. Under state law they are 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. Hosts can be respoinsible for injuries or the consequences of drunk driving.

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 bodily 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. I fyou want to ask more about civil liability, talk to 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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