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Maryland Court of Appeals Issues Landmark Decision on Social Host Liability for Permitting Underage Drinking at a Residence

On July 5, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an historical opinion that changes the legal landscape in Maryland for civil claims against parents who permit underage drinking in their homes, and which results in injury or death to the underage drinker. Citing Maryland’s Criminal Law Article § 10-117(b), which prohibits adults from allowing underage drinking on their property, the Court noted that the statute “represents the General Assembly’s determination that underage persons have a diminished ability to handle alcohol and adults should not facilitate minors’ consumption in the adults’ homes…”

Under the Statute or Ordinance Rule, the Court concluded that § 10-117(b) was designed to protect “a particular class of persons, that is, persons under 21.” Thus, when asserting a civil claim against a violator of § 10-117(b), the plaintiff must show that the injured person is within the class of persons sought to be protected by the statute, and that the harm suffered is of a kind which the drafters intended to protect. The legislative history of the statute makes clear that there was a “deep concern for the protection of underage people from alcohol and the risks alcohol poses to them and the loss of judgment that leads to risky behavior – like getting in a car with a fellow partygoer who is too impaired to drive.”

Importantly, the Court concluded that the defense of “contributory negligence,” i.e., the assertion that the injured person himself was at least partially culpable for causing his own injuries and which therefore would defeat the entire claim under Maryland law, “is not available when a defendant violates an exceptional statute, the effect of which ‘is to place the entire responsibility for such harm as has occurred upon the defendant.’” This is because the statute itself has as its very purpose the shifting of responsibility where it is enacted in order to protect a certain class of persons against their own inability to protect themselves.

Grenier Law Group is currently handling a highly publicized case involving the tragic deaths of two 18 year olds at the hands of a third teenager, who was driving at a recklessly dangerous speed while intoxicated. The three young men had been at an underage drinking party hosted by a parent, who has since pleaded guilty to two violations of § 10-117(b) and paid a $5000.00 fine.

Firm principal Peter Grenier was interviewed by Bethesda Magazine online and quoted extensively regarding the legal ramifications and implications of this landmark court decision. Here is link to the article.

For a copy of the Court’s decision in Kiriakos v. Phillips and Dankos v. Stapf (consolidated cases for appeal), click here.

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