When Hosting a Party, Know Your Responsibilities to Prevent a Lawsuit

Life is full of celebrations and reasons to gather. From weddings, graduations and birthdays to summer barbecues, picnics, bonfires, and holiday celebrations, people enjoy coming together for parties.

Celebrations are important, but those that involve alcohol imbue hosts with specific legal responsibilities to ensure the safety of their guests. Whether private parties, parties with caterers and bartenders or celebrations held at a restaurant or facility, awareness of the different liabilities will help hosts avoid damaging and costly lawsuits.

Dram Shop or Social Host Liability

The legal term outlining the civil and criminal responsibilities of a person providing alcohol to a guest is called Social Host Liability or Dram Shop Liability. Each state has different laws defining Dram Shop Liability and these depend upon the setting and method of distribution of the alcohol. It is very important to know your state’s specific laws, as they differ across the U.S. Listed below is insight into Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop Liability laws, followed by practical steps to protect hosts from damaging lawsuits.

Private Parties

In Pennsylvania, if guests are served alcohol at a private party by a host, the burden of responsibility is placed upon the guest consuming the beverages. Accidents or other personal injuries stemming from an alcohol-related incident fall upon the intoxicated person and their negligence, not the host – as long as that person is of legal drinking age.

As the host, it is your moral responsibility to ensure your guests do not become intoxicated and drive, but you are not liable civilly as a result of an adult guest over-consuming.

The only instance where this is not the case is if a guest is under age. Pennsylvania law does not protect the liability of social hosts of minors, even if the host is unaware of the drinking. As host, it is your duty to prevent minors from accessing alcohol on your property or at your event. If minors do drink at your gathering, you may be subject to both civil and criminal liability as a result of injuries from the minor’s intoxication and fines or jail time for serving a minor.

Private Parties with a Caterer or Bartender

Hosting a party with a hired caterer or bartender is safer than having an open bar at one’s home. A caterer or bartender has been licensed by the state to serve alcohol. If they provided alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person, they can be held legally responsible for injuries and damages caused by that person. Any hired service with a liquor license can be held accountable for an accident caused by an intoxicated guest.

The benefits of hiring a caterer or bartender are protection and experience. Catering and bartending professionals have been trained to watch for signs of intoxication and can limit guests’ alcohol consumption. Additionally, caterers and bartenders are liable for serving guests and most carry liability insurance that will protect them if a lawsuit arises, relieving the burden from the host.

Parties at a Restaurant or Bar

The rules and regulations for an establishment to obtain and maintain a liquor license under the Pennsylvania Liquor Code are a safeguard for party hosts.

Under Pennsylvania’s Dram Shop law, if a business provides alcohol to a minor, visibly intoxicated person, insane person or habitual drunkard, that establishment is legally responsible for any injuries or damages that person may cause. Establishments have a duty to stop serving patrons when they become visibly intoxicated and lose the ability to make rational decisions.

If a person is injured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, it is sometimes possible to recover money from the business that served the intoxicated driver. The driver remains responsible for his or her negligence, but the business may be liable as well. The host of the party would not be liable though, since the burden of responsibility was placed upon the bartender, restaurant or bar.

Party Planning Safeguards

If you plan to serve alcohol at a party in your home or on property you own, consider these steps to limit your liability.

  • Ensure you have the proper insurance coverage. Speak with your insurance agent about homeowners’ coverage, exclusions, and limitations. Consider increasing your coverage if you will be hosting a large event.
  • Consider hosting the party at a venue with a liquor license or hiring a licensed caterer or bartender. They are trained to spot minors and intoxicated guests and limit their alcohol consumption. They are also liable if anything happens.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption to monitor guests and best prevent accidents from occurring.
  • Offer food and non-alcoholic beverages throughout the event. Consider limiting alcoholic beverages to the first half of the event to give guests time to sober up by the time the event ends.
  • Encourage designated drivers and be responsible to help intoxicated guests obtain a safe ride home or provide a place to stay overnight.
  • If there are children in the home, discuss the serious impact of liquor liability and how sneaking drinks could lead to significant fines, jail time or even serious injuries or death (if they or a friend were to drive after drinking).
  • Ensure the bar is manned if there are minors at the event. Ignorance is not a viable excuse when hosting an event where minors may obtain alcohol.
  • If you catch minors drinking at your event, immediately take the alcohol away, confiscate keys and provide a ride home.

Only an attorney can properly advise you about the extent and application of laws if you have concerns about an event or when there have been injuries or damages from an intoxicated person at a gathering. Lepley, Engelman, Yaw & Wilk attorneys have extensive and broad experience in evaluating, settling, and trying personal injury and DUI cases in court.

We also know that each case is unique. We would be happy to discuss your case or your concerns during a FREE consultation. If you don’t win, you don’t pay. Call today at (800) 422-5396.

This opinion represents a generalization based upon present Pennsylvania law. Please consult an attorney to discuss your specific circumstances before taking any action.

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