Alcoholic Beverages: Social Host Liability

Allen v. Liberman, (Third District, June 18, 2014) 227 Cal.App.4th 46, 173 Cal.Rptr.3d 463, 14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 6675, 2014 Daily Journal D.A.R. 7751

The parents of a 17-year old girl who was found dead from acute ethanol intoxication the morning after sleeping over at a girlfriend’s home, filed an action for wrongful death against the other girl and her parents. The plaintiffs alleged that the decedent had obtained and consumed 15 shots of vodka from the defendants’ bar and that when she began vomiting and passed out, her friend propped her head against toilet, took her cell phone, closed the bathroom door and went to bed. The plaintiffs further alleged that the girl’s father did not check on the decedent the following morning because his daughter had told him she had become sick from drinking but that she was okay.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that the action was barred by Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (c), which provides that “no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person … resulting from the consumption of those beverages.” (In 2010 the Legislature created an exception to social host immunity, where a parent or other adult knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person whom he or she knows, or should have known, to be under 21 years of age. (§ 1714, subd. (d)(1).) However, the plaintiffs did not contend the new exception applied retroactively.) The plaintiffs opposed the motion, contending that the immunity was inapplicable because the defendants did not actually furnish the alcohol to the decedent. The Plaintiffs also contended that irrespective of the immunity, the defendants breached an independent duty of care to the decedent, failed to exercise reasonable care in rendering aid to her and increased her risk of harm.

The trial court granted summary judgment and the court of appeal affirmed, finding that the action was barred by the statutory immunity, and that the plaintiffs had not established a special relationship under which the defendants had a duty to render such assistance:

According to the Allens, because the Libermans did not furnish alcohol to Shelby, the social host immunity statute does not apply and they may be held liable for negligently supervising her. We disagree with the Allens’ ultimate conclusion. “ ‘ “[I]t is a settled principle of statutory interpretation that language of a statute should not be given a literal meaning if doing so would result in absurd consequences which the Legislature did not intend.” … It would not make sense to interpret the statute in a manner that gives a person immunity for directly handing a drink to a minor, but affords no similar protection to a person who fails to lock up the liquor cabinet to prevent the minor from helping herself to alcohol. Indeed, applicable case law does not support the Allens’ interpretation of the social host immunity law.

The Allens next contend the social host statute does not provide blanket immunity to Kayli’s parents because they owed Shelby an independent duty of care as adults supervising a minor invitee in their home. …Here there is no evidence that Wallace or Debby Liberman acted as good Samaritans at any point before Shelby stopped breathing. They did not supervise Shelby, they did not prevent her from drinking alcohol, and they did not assist her overnight after she passed out. Although they had a special relationship with Shelby because she was a minor invited into their home (citation), that relationship, by itself, does not negate the specific statutory social host immunity applicable to these facts.

There is no doubt that Kayli could have done much more to protect or aid Shelby. But the Allens have not established a legally recognized special relationship under which Kayli had a duty to render such assistance. …[S]pecial relationships exist in certain circumstances, but Kayli was not a business proprietor, Shelby was not her customer, and Kayli was not an adult who had invited a minor into her home. Kayli was a minor herself. The Allens do not cite authority imposing a special relationship on a minor who invites another minor to stay the night.

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