Social Host Liability
Beer, wine, Vodka, Scotch, Bourbon, Gin, mixers, glasses; everything is all ready for the party. The guests arrive and the house is filled with friends talking and laughing.
Then Uncle Fred shows up. Uh-oh. Uncle Fred is obviously intoxicated. He slides up to the bar and slurs out, ‘I’ll have a beer.’
What do you do? You know Uncle Fred drove himself to your house. You know he is planning to drive home. If you serve him more alcohol, are you responsible if Uncle Fred hurts himself in a car accident? Are you responsible if Uncle Fred hurts someone else in a crash?
The answer to these questions is an example of how Virginia law seems to lag behind common sense. Serving an obviously intoxicated social guest who we know is planning to drive home should expose us to liability to the guest and anyone s/he hurts in a crash. But that is not the law in Virginia.
Virginia law holds that the sole responsibility for anyone injured by a social guest is the guest alone. We are not responsible for Uncle Fred’s injuries because he was contributorily negligent. He contributed to his own injuries by driving while intoxicated and having a car accident, so Uncle Fred can’t blame the person who served him the alcohol.
But are we responsible to the innocent victim of Uncle Fred’s negligence? No, the victim can only look to Uncle Fred for compensation for the injuries.
Isn’t serving an obviously intoxicated guest whom we knew was going to drive home a negligent act? Common sense would seem to say yes, but more than just negligence is required to hold someone responsible for an injury.
In order to hold a wrongdoer responsible for negligent conduct, the negligent act must also be a proximate cause of the injuries. Virginia law considers the sole proximate cause of injuries suffered in this situation to be Uncle Fred’s consumption of the alcohol, not the serving of the alcohol. The server did not make Uncle Fred drink it, and Virginia law holds the drinker alone responsible, not the server.
The only exception to this seemingly senseless result is if the server of alcohol works in a licensed restaurant or bar. In that case, the server and the bar will be in trouble with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but not responsible to the injured victim.
The other exception is if the guest is a minor. Serving alcohol to a minor is a crime, so we could be charged with an offense for serving the minor, but we would not be civilly responsible for either the minor’s injuries or those of anyone else hurt in the crash.
Regardless of current Virginia law, common sense should at least dictate our conduct in this situation: Call Uncle Fred a taxi or make other arrangements to get him home.