As we reach the Thanksgiving Holiday, we enjoy taking time with family and friends to gather together to eat, drink and be merry. However, too much drinking and merriment can lead to unsafe circumstances that can have serious legal ramifications.  So, before you re-fill your father-in-law’s Old Fashioned … again … at your holiday gathering, let’s take a moment to consider the potential liability to which that refill might be exposing you.

Presently, Rhode Island does not permit recovery under a theory of adult social host liability. That is to say, persons that suffer damages as a result of the negligent service of alcohol by an adult to an adult, in a social setting, may not recover damages from the negligent server of alcohol. There is one significant exception to this rule. An adult that serves alcohol to an underage person, or that has knowledge of the presence and consumption of alcohol by underage persons, may liable for damages arising out of such alcohol consumption.

The above described state of the law in Rhode Island essentially means that if you do pour that drink, or several drinks, for an adult relative you cannot be held liable if they drive while intoxicated, cause a crash and injure a third party. Our Supreme Court has declined to impose so-called social host liability even when the host served liquor, and encouraged drinking, to a point of excess. Willis v. Omar, 954 A.2d 126 (R.I. 2008). However, if your underage cousin decides to help himself to items from the “adult” cooler, you, as the host of the party, may very well be liable if his intoxication is the cause of injury to a third party. In Martin v. Marciano, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that adult property owners that serve alcohol to underage persons, or that are aware that alcohol is available for consumption by underage persons on their property, will be duty bound to protect their guests from reasonably foreseeable harm at the hands of other guests or third parties. Martin v. Marciano, 871 A.2d 911 (R.I. 2005). In Rhode Island, liability may be imposed even when a host doesn’t actually serve liquor to an underage person. Merely having knowledge that liquor was available to an underage person can be a sufficient basis to impose liability on a holiday host.

It is good practice to ensure that none of your holiday guests overly indulge in the compliments of the season. However, failing to do so with an adult guest will likely not result in legal liability, whereas the same failure as to an underage guest could result in a lawsuit. If you have questions about your responsibilities as a social host, or if you, or someone you know has been injured due to the intoxication of another, do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Kiernan, Plunkett & Redihan at 401-831-2900.