Technically Legal: Social Host Responsibility Regarding Drunk Drivers

The holiday season is approaching, and the time is here for friends and family to gather and celebrate. You may even wish to throw a party this season, but the prospect of serving alcohol to a large group can be worrisome. What level of responsibility do you have? What if a guest at your party drives drunk? What if they hurt themselves or someone else?

The answers to these questions are rooted in a Virginia legal doctrine known as contributory negligence. Contributory negligence states that if a person is injured, they can only make a recovery for their injury if they did not contribute at all to the accident. In this case, the drinker clearly contributed to his own injuries, so you cannot be held liable. Furthermore, the law in Virginia holds only the drunk driver responsible for injuries to others. So if your guests cause an accident on the way home, they are the only ones responsible for the damages.[1]

Common sense would seem to say that serving an obviously drunk person and then allowing them to drive would confer at least some responsibility, but contributory negligence causes many strange and difficult to understand situations. All but four states have long since moved to a more modern and sensible standard of comparative negligence, but Virginia continues to labor under this archaic law. The law is further complicated by the doctrine of negligent entrustment, which can hold people liable for loaning cars or guns to people unfit to use them. Negligent entrustment cannot be applied to alcohol, but it can come into play if the intoxicated individual ends up behind the wheel of someone else’s car.

There are a few exceptions to the rule described above. A bartender at a licensed institution who serves an obviously intoxicated person and allows them to drive could get their bar or restaurant in trouble with the ABC Board, but there would be no criminal charges. Of course that doesn’t apply to your house party. The only way you can get in trouble with the law for serving alcohol is if you give it to a minor, and that holds true whether or not the minor is intoxicated.[2]

This article is just an explanation of legal responsibility in a certain situation. In real life you should always step up to prevent a drunk driver from taking to the road. The dangers and consequences of drunk driving are just too great to ignore. Having a list of local taxi services printed and displayed can be a great preventative measure. Confronting someone about their drunkenness can be awkward and confusing, but there are some strategies you can use:[3]

  • Try to keep confrontation out of the conversation.
  • Provide alternate transportation, either a ride or a taxi.
  • Offer them a place to sleep.
  • Enlist some help, it’s more difficult to deny or ignore a group.
  • Take their keys. It may be a last step and it may lead to confrontation, but allowing them to drive is simply not an option.

The holidays are a joyous time meant for the coming together of family and friends. Don’t be afraid to step up and prevent drunk driving before your family’s holiday season takes a tragic turn.