Underage Adult Host Can be Liable for Acts of Underage Guests Who Consume Alcohol at the Host’s Home

Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, 244 N.J. 199 (2020). Near the beginning of his opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in this case, Justice Albin summarized the issue:

“Under our statutes and case law, a social host over the age of twenty-one has a duty not to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest, either an adult or a minor,if it is reasonably foreseeable the guest is about to drive. This case presents a variation on that theme. Does a young adult, over the age of eighteen but under the age of twenty-one –an adult under the lawful drinking age –have a duty not to facilitate the service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest in his home if the guest is expected to operate a motor vehicle?” The Court answered “yes.”

As discussed here, the Appellate Division also found a duty. But that court applied that duty only prospectively, affirming summary judgment for defendants, rather than giving plaintiffs here the benefit of that ruling. The panel did so because imposing “a novel rule of liability” that might not have been anticipated “would not be equitable.”

The Supreme Court, applying de novo review, disagreed in two respects. First, the Court applied to this case the duty that it announced. “The rule we establish today was foreshadowed by the case law discussed earlier and is the logical extension of our common law jurisprudence and legislative enactments aimed at combatting drunk driving and providing fair compensation for its victims. In providing justification for the application of this new social host liability rule to the parties in this case, we need only turn to our words in Kelly [v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538 (1984)]– ‘to do otherwise would not only deprive the plaintiff of any benefit resulting from her own efforts but would also make it less likely that, in the future, individuals will be willing to claim rights, not yet established, that they believe are just.’ 96 N.J. at 551.”

Second, the Court formulated a different, more detailed rule than the Appellate Division had announced:

“[A] plaintiff injured by an intoxicated underage social guest may succeed in a cause of action against an underage social host if the plaintiff can prove by a preponderance of the evidence the following:

(1) The social host knowingly permitted and facilitated the consumption of alcoholic beverages to underage guests in a residence under his control. This element does not require that the social host be a leaseholder or titleholder to the property. It is enough that the social host has the ability and apparent authority to give others access to the property;

(2) The social host knowingly provided alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest or knowingly permitted the visibly intoxicated underage guest to serve himself or be served by others. It is no defense that the underage guests bought and brought the alcoholic beverages that they or others consumed;

(3) The social host knew or reasonably should have known that the visibly intoxicated social guest would leave the premises and operate a motor vehicle and therefore would foreseeably endanger the lives and property of others;

(4) The social host did not take any reasonable steps to prevent the intoxicated guest from getting behind the wheel of the vehicle; and

(5) The social guest, as a result of intoxication facilitated by the social host, negligently operated a vehicle and proximately caused injury to a third party.”

Justice Albin’s opinion went back to Rappaport v. Nichols, 31 N.J. 188 (1959), and canvassed host liability caselaw and statutory law from that date forward. Apart from announcing an important new rule of law, the opinion is a very useful compilation, in one place, of the entire history of the law in this area, which will be useful going forward.

The case also contains an interesting standing wrinkle. The third-party defendant against whom the duty was sought to run, Zwierzynski, appealed the Appellate Division’s ruling that imposed a duty prospectively, but not against him. Arguably, he might not have had standing to appeal. But Justice Albin flagged that issue in a footnote. “It may seem odd that Zwierzynski appeals from a decision that dismissed the action against him. Nevertheless, because of his status as a party in this case, he is the only person in a position to challenge what he claims is the erroneous imposition of a duty on similarly situated future litigants. Zwierzynski’s challenge is permissible because ‘[u]nlike the Federal Constitution, there is no express language in New Jersey’s Constitution which confines the exercise of our judicial power to actual cases and controversies.’ Crescent Park Tenants Ass’n v. Realty Equities Corp.of N.Y., 58 N.J. 98, 107 (1971).”