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NJ Lowers the Bar on Liability for Underage Social Hosts

October 22, 2020

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously expands the scope of social host liability to social hosts over the age of 18 (but under the age of 21) who may now be civilly liable to a drunk driving victim.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In Estate of<em> <a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Narleski-v.Gomes_.pdf">Narleski v.Gomes</a>,</em> Narleski, a nineteen year old man died at the scene of a car crash after the vehicle driven by his inebriated friend crashed into the center median and flipped over. The Plaintiff’s estate brought a wrongful death action against the liquor store that sold the alcohol to the Narleski underaged host and the liquor store then filed a third party complaint against the underage social host and his parents. The Superior Court, Middlesex County, granted summary judgment in favor of the underage social host and parents, and the Appellate Division affirmed. This result was unsurprising since New Jersey’s Social Host Liability Act did not address the service of alcohol to visibly intoxicated underage guests and defined social host as “a person who legally provides alcoholic beverages to another person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.” N.J.S.A.2A:15-5.5. Therefore, before Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, only social hosts of legal drinking age (21) were liable under this Act.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">However, the Supreme Court of New Jersey unanimously reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and created new, expansive law, holding that an underage social host who facilitates underage drinking in his/her residence has a duty not to knowingly provide or allow self-service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest. Additionally, if the guest becomes visibly intoxicated, the underage social host has a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent the guest from operating a motor vehicle.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Essentially, the result is that an underage adult (18-20) has the same civil obligations as a citizen over the legal drinking age (21). The age of a social host does not create immunity from legal responsibility and the established duty which is intended to protect others from foreseeable harm and prevent drunk driving.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Court laid out a five factor test to determine if an underage social guest may succeed in a cause of action against an underage social host. The following must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence: 1) the social host knowingly facilitated the consumption of alcoholic beverages to underage guests in his/her residence; 2) the social host knowingly provided or permitted self-service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest; 3) the social host knew or should have known the visibly intoxicated guest would operate a motor vehicle; 4) the social host did not take any reasonable steps to prevent the intoxicated guest from drinking and driving; and 5) the social guest operated a vehicle while under the influence and caused injury to the third party. The Supreme Court of New Jersey established this new rule as the “logical extension of our common law” intending to prevent drunk driving and combat tragic outcomes.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Madeline Troutman for her contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact <a href="mailto:tbracken@wcmlaw.com">Thomas Bracken</a>.</p>

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