In 1987 the New Jersey legislature passed the social host law. It says that if one of your guests consumes too much alcohol and injures someone in a car accident after the party, the injured person can recover damages from you.
In some ways, the social host law runs counter to our natural impulse to please our guests. As hosts, we want to be generous; we want to have more than enough food and drink on hand, so that our friends will want for nothing. But it is through this natural generosity of spirit–and of spirits–that we might expose ourselves to lawsuits. Here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions about social host law.
Q. When is the host at risk?
If the host serves alcohol to someone who is visibly intoxicated, then they are putting themselves at risk. But you must also guard against serving a guest enough alcohol to raise a concern that he or she is over the legal limit to drive a car. If your guest is visibly intoxicated, and you know that this guest is going to drive, yet do nothing to reduce the risk he or she creates, you may be liable.
Q. Who can sue?
Under the law, only an innocent third party who is injured by the intoxicated guest may sue the host. The law disqualifies any guest who is old enough to buy and drink alcohol from recovering damages from the host, even if he or she is injured. In contrast, however, an underage guest can sue the host. If the host serves them alcohol and the minor is subsequently injured in a car accident, then they can sue.
Q. What are the circumstances that allow someone to sue the host?
A third party can only sue the host if the intoxicated guest’s negligent use of a vehicle resulted in their injuries. The social host law shows the state’s determination to reduce the number of alcohol-related car accidents. In fact, it brings this campaign right into your home.
Q. Can someone sue the host even if their guests don’t overdo it?
This is the tough part. Since the law makes you a possible defendant, the attorney for the injured person may bring you in to the lawsuit even if you are certain that your guest was not intoxicated. At the very least, you would have to pay for litigation costs for a defense.
Q. How can I protect myself?
The law does not provide any guidance as to how to protect yourself from liability in situations where you may have guests in your home. You can’t watch everybody all of the time — and if you try to, you won’t have much fun.
So use common sense. Ask trusted friends and family members to help you keep an eye on things. Especially if some of your guests are friends of friends. If it appears that someone has had too much, see if another guest will drive them home. You may also want to consider calling a cab.
Finally, be sure you have coverage. Many homeowner’s and tenant’s policies provide coverage for a host who is accused of serving a guest too much. Therefore, you should review your policy with your attorney or your insurance agent to be sure your coverage is up to par. Knowing the ins and outs of the social host law can help you prevent your party from turning into a more costly affair than you ever intended. Now you can relax and enjoy the party!
Below is some of the more technical, legislative information you may want to know:
As used in this act:
“Visibly intoxicated” means a state of intoxication accompanied by a perceptible act or series of actions which present clear signs of intoxication.
“Social host” means a person who, by express or implied invitation, invites another person onto an unlicensed premises for purposes of hospitality and who is not the holder of a liquor license for the premises and is not required to hold a liquor license for the premises under Title 33 of the Revised Statutes, and who legally provides alcoholic beverages to another person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.
“Vehicle” means a device primarily propelled by a motor that is used to transport a person or property.
“Person” means a natural person, the estate of a natural person, an association of natural persons, or an association, trust company, partnership, corporation, organization, or the manager, agent, servant, officer or employee of any of them.
L. 1987, c. 404, s. 1.
2A:15-5.6. Exclusive civil remedy
a. This act shall be the exclusive civil remedy for personal injury or property damage resulting from the negligent provision of alcoholic beverages by a social host to a person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.
b. A person who sustains bodily injury or injury to real or personal property as a result of the negligent provision of alcoholic beverages by a social host to a person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages may recover damages from a social host only if:
(1) The social host willfully and knowingly provided alcoholic beverages either:
(a) To a person who was visibly intoxicated in the social host’s presence; or
(b) To a person who was visibly intoxicated under circumstances manifesting reckless disregard of the consequences as affecting the life or property of another; and
(2) The social host provided alcoholic beverages to the visibly intoxicated person under circumstances which created an unreasonable risk of foreseeable harm to the life or property of another, and the social host failed to exercise reasonable care and diligence to avoid the foreseeable risk; and
(3) The injury arose out of an accident caused by the negligent operation of a vehicle by the visibly intoxicated person who was provided alcoholic beverages by a social host.
c. To determine the liability of a social host under subsection b. of this section, if a test to determine the presence of alcohol in the blood indicates a blood alcohol concentration of:
(4) less than 0.10% by weight of alcohol in the blood, there shall be an irrefutable presumption that the person tested was not visibly intoxicated in the social host’s presence and that the social host did not provide alcoholic beverages to the person under circumstances which manifested reckless disregard of the consequences as affecting the life or property of another; or
(5) at least 0.10% but less than 0.15% by weight of alcohol in the blood, there shall be a rebuttable presumption, that the person tested was not visibly intoxicated in the social host’s presence and that the social host did not provide alcoholic beverages to the person under circumstances which manifested reckless disregard of the consequences as affecting the life or property of another.