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Hosting a Holiday Party? Protect Yourself from Liability by Being a Responsible Host

Posted in Our Blog on November 21, 2019

As the holiday season gets into full swing, it’s a good time to remember your legal obligations when you host a party where alcohol is served. You are responsible to make sure that your guests do not injure anyone else while intoxicated.

Social host liability laws

Although they vary widely in specific terms, most U.S. states have some version of a social host liability law. These laws state that a business or individual serving alcohol to guests has a “duty of care” to make sure that the guest does not harm anyone else while in an impaired state. These laws are most often enforced in drunk driving situations but can also apply in an incident where an intoxicated guest hurts another person or causes property damage.

A host who neglects their responsibility when serving alcoholic beverages can find themselves the target of a lawsuit if their guest injures or kills someone while intoxicated. They are liable if it can be proven that the host was the one who served the alcohol to the guest and did not try to prevent the guest from the harmful action. In rare cases, especially involving underage drinking, party hosts have even faced criminal charges.

Protect yourself by protecting your guests

While this risk sounds scary, you don’t have to refrain from entertaining your friends and neighbors in your home! An important factor in determining duty of care liability is how attentive you were to alcohol consumption at your event. Courts will consider whether you took steps to prevent overindulgence or subsequent actions by your guests.

Some of these include:

1. Hold your event at a restaurant or other public facility rather than in your own home. 
As the host, you still have a duty of care toward your guests, but the facility also assumes a share of the risk.

2. Hire a professional bartender.
A trained bartender is experienced with serving alcohol and observing signs of intoxication. Make sure they know that you expect them to cut off service to anyone who is visibly intoxicated.

3. Encourage your guests to have a designated driver.
If your guests arrive in groups, request that one of them refrain from drinking to make sure everyone gets home safely. Have back up plans as well — be prepared to order a cab or an Uber for a guest who is too impaired to drive, or have a place for a friend to sleep over.

4. Be careful about your own drinking.
One advantage of hosting a party is that you don’t have to drive anywhere after it ends! But it’s best to minimize your own indulgence so that you can stay alert and aware of what’s going on with your guests.

5. Offer alternatives to alcohol.
Make sure you have non-alcoholic beverage options available. Serve food and plenty of water along with the beer, wine, or cocktails. Wind down your serving of alcohol about an hour before you intend the party to end, and offer juice, soft drinks, or coffee to your guests during that last hour.

6. Don’t encourage or pressure anyone to drink alcohol.
Offer a drink to your guests, but don’t push if they decline. Don’t refill glasses automatically or “top off” drinks — let your guests take the action if they want a refill. And of course don’t start drinking games or let any of your guests start one.

What if something bad happens anyway?

Despite all precautions, you may not be able to stop a guest from making a bad choice that harms someone else. However if you can prove that you took sufficient steps to try to mitigate the risk in advance, the liability will fall on them rather than on you.

You should also make sure that you have adequate  liability coverage with your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Most standard policies cover $100,000 to $300,000 of liability, but you can request higher amounts. You can also purchase a separate umbrella policy if you have higher risks or more assets to protect.

If you hear about an incident with a guest from your party or rumors of a forthcoming lawsuit, it’s a good idea to confer with your attorney to prepare against any unpleasant surprises. If you are served with a lawsuit in a duty of care incident, don’t ignore it or try to handle it yourself. Contact an attorney who is experienced in handling liability and personal injury lawsuits.

Remember that such incidents are very much the exception, and most parties go off without a hitch. Make sure you are a responsible host, and you and your friends can enjoy the warm holiday glow together without fear of an unpleasant aftermath!

You can reach our team for a free consultation by calling (504) 500-5000 or sending us a request via our online contact form.