Written by: Cynthia P. Letsch, J.D.
It is party season, which means that many of you will be serving alcohol to guests. The question arises: what liability do you have if some drinks alcohol at your party and then gets into a car accident? This is commonly referred to as “social host” law. A social host is someone who does not have a permit to sell or serve alcohol. Iowa’s social host law was amended in 1999 and again in 2014. Since 1999, social hosts do not have to be so afraid of being sued if a party guest has a subsequent accident causing an injury. That is not to say that you are totally immune, however. There are still circumstances that could cause you to end up on the wrong side of a lawsuit, or even jail bars. And, trust me, the cost to defend yourself is massive, even if you win. So, the better advice is to act responsibly.
Here are some tips to help you, and your party guests, avoid the very unpleasant consequences that result from drinking and driving:
1. Do not host drinking games or contests that encourage excess alcohol consumption.
2. Keep tabs on how much your guests are drinking and intervene if a guest is overdoing it. Enlist the help of other guests, if you need to. Arrange for alternative transportation for guests who obviously should not be driving.
3. If a guest arrives at your party in an already-intoxicated state, it is not a good idea to add to the intoxicated state. Knowingly doing so could be considered gross negligence, especially if the accident results in a death. Trust me, there is a lawyer out there who will help the injured party, or the injured party’s family, try to hold you responsible.
4. Serving alcohol to minors is the most common way to create liability under the social host law. If you serve alcohol to a minor, and the minor is subsequently involved in a car accident, you can be both criminally and civilly liable for the injuries, even if the minor was not fully intoxicated. However, in and of itself, it is not illegal for a minor to drink alcohol, in private residences, in small quantities, if at least one of the minor’s parents is present and consents.
5. Provide alternative festive beverages that will allow guests to feel as though they are still part of the party even if they are not drinking alcohol.