33 Years Since Kelly v. Gwinnell Introduced Social Host Liability

On June 27, 1984, the Supreme Court decided Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538 (1984).  There, Chief Justice Wilentz, writing for a 6-1 majority (Justice Garibaldi was the lone dissenter), announced a new rule of law regarding the liability of social hosts who serve alcohol to those who then get into an auto accident caused by intoxication.  The holding was “that a host who serves liquor to an adult social guest, knowing both that the guest is intoxicated and will thereafter be operating a motor vehicle, is liable for injuries inflicted on a third party as a result of the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by the adult guest when the negligence is caused by the intoxication.”

The Court was aware that its ruling, the first of its type in the United States, would cause consternation among portions of the public.  Chief Justice Wilentz addressed that head-on.  “While we recognize the concern that our ruling will interfere with accepted standards of social behavior; will intrude on and somewhat diminish the enjoyment, relaxation, and camaraderie that accompany social gatherings at which alcohol is served; and that such gatherings and social relationships are not simply tangential benefits of a civilized society but are regarded by many as important, we believe that the added assurance of just compensation to the victims of drunken driving as well as the added deterrent effect of the rule on such driving outweigh the importance of those other values. Indeed, we believe that given society’s extreme concern about drunken driving, any change in social behavior resulting from the rule will be regarded ultimately as neutral at the very least, and not as a change for the worse; but that in any event if there be a loss, it is well worth the gain.”

Based on that same rationale, it was not troubling to the Court that it was going where other jurisdictions had not gone.  “It seems to us that by now it ought to be clear to all that the concerns on which that point of view is based are minor compared to the devastating consequences of drunken driving. This is a problem that society is just beginning to face squarely, and perhaps we in New Jersey are doing so sooner than others.”

In passionate language reminiscent of his opinion in Mount Laurel II just one year earlier, the Chief Justice rejected the dissent’s view that the issue of social host liability should have been left to the Legislature:

“If we but step back and observe ourselves objectively, we will see a phenomenon not of merriment but of cruelty, causing misery to innocent people, tolerated for years despite our knowledge that without fail, out of our extraordinarily high number of deaths caused by automobiles, nearly half have regularly been attributable to drunken driving….  Should we be so concerned about disturbing the customs of those who knowingly supply that which causes the offense, so worried about their costs, so worried about their inconvenience, as if they were the victims rather than the cause of the carnage?  And while the dissent is certainly correct that we could learn more through an investigation, to characterize our knowledge as “scant” or insufficient is to ignore what is obvious, and that is that drunken drivers are causing substantial personal and financial destruction in this state and that a goodly number of them have been drinking in homes as well as taverns.  Does a court really need to know more?  Is our rule vulnerable because we do not know—nor will the Legislature—how much injury will be avoided or how many lives saved by this rule?  Or because we do not know how many times the victim will require compensation from the host in order to be made whole?”

Kelly was limited to the particular circumstances summarized in the holding quoted in the first paragraph above.  The Court cautioned that it was “not faced with a party where many guests congregate, nor with guests serving each other, nor with a host busily occupied with other responsibilities and therefore unable to attend to the matter of serving liquor, nor with a drunken host.”

This decision triggered a legislative response.  The New Jersey Commission on Alcoholic Beverage Liability studied the issue and rendered a final report in 1985.  In 1987, the Legislature codified social host liability in N.J.S.A. 2a:15-5.5 to -5.8, thus displacing Kelly.  Nonetheless, the decision to create social host liability, once seen as unthinkable by many, became mainstream within a few years and is now an accepted part of New Jersey jurisprudence.