Duty of Care: Social Host Liability

By on January 20, 2015 - Comments off

Ennabe v. Manosa, (Supreme Court, February 24, 2014) 58 Cal.4th 697, 319 P.3d 201, 168 Cal.Rptr.3d 440, 14 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1870, 2014 Daily Journal D.A.R. 2176

The parents of a 19-year-old man who was killed when he was struck by a drunk minor driving away from a private party, filed a wrongful death action against a woman who had hosted the party. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant had hosted the party at a vacant rental residence owned by her parents, that she had publicized the party via telephone, word of mouth and text messaging, and that she had charged “unfamiliar partygoers” among the 40 to 60 people in attendance $3 to $5, for which they were allowed access to beer and other alcoholic beverages available on the premises.  The plaintiffs also alleged that the minor, who had paid the admission fee, was obviously intoxicated when he arrived on the premises, and yet was permitted to pay the fee and drink.

The defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that under former Civil Code Section 1714, she could not be liable as a social host for providing alcohol to even an obviously intoxicated minor. The trial court granted summary judgment and the court of appeal affirmed, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the defendant was a person who “sells, or causes to be sold” any alcoholic beverage within the meaning of the exception in Business and Professions Code Section 25602.1. The court held that the Legislature did not intend to impose liability on social hosts and guests who contribute money to a common fund to purchase alcoholic beverages for a social occasion.

However, the California Supreme Court reversed, holding that because the defendant charged an entrance fee to her party which enabled party guests to drink the alcoholic beverages she provided, she could be liable under the statute for selling alcoholic beverages to obviously intoxicated minors:

[W]e conclude that the placement of section 25602.1 in the Business and Professions Code does not limit the scope of that provision to commercial enterprises. First, the structure of section 25602.1 suggests it applies to noncommercial providers of alcohol. The statute addresses four categories of persons and we assume those falling in the first three categories—those licensed by the Department of ABC, those without licenses but who are nevertheless required to be licensed, and those authorized to sell alcohol by the federal government—are for the most part engaged in some commercial enterprise. The final category of persons addressed by section 25602.1 is more of a catchall: “any other person” who sells alcohol. Consistent with the plain meaning of the statutory language and the views of the Department of ABC, we find this final category includes private persons and ostensible social hosts who, for whatever reason, charge money for alcoholic drinks. To be sure, this category poses something of a tautology, for a person who sells alcoholic beverages is generally required to have a license (§ 23399.1), threatening to collapse this fourth category into the second one, but we agree with the Department of ABC that the plain meaning of the word “person” as used in section 25602.1’s final category can include someone like defendant Manosa, a private person who was not engaged in a commercial enterprise.  …

[A]lthough we reject the suggestion that the scope of the Business and Professions Code, and thus section 25602.1, is confined to commercial, profit-generating endeavors, we note that even were we to find to the contrary, and that all private, noncommercial social-host scenarios should be governed exclusively under the provisions of Civil Code section 1714, that argument would merely beg the question of when, and under what conditions, an ostensible social host (such as defendant Manosa) loses that characterization—and thus becomes a commercial entity falling within the jurisdiction of  the Business and Professions Code—by selling alcoholic beverages. Accordingly, merely attaching to Manosa the label of “social host” does not advance the analysis, for what would we call a social host who sells alcoholic beverages?

Because the facts, read in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, support the conclusion Manosa is a person who sold alcoholic beverages to Garcia, a minor who was obviously intoxicated, and Garcia’s intoxication was the proximate cause of Andrew Ennabe’s death, she is potentially liable under section 25602.1, and the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in defendant’s favor.

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