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Who Is Liable When an Intoxicated Person Harms Someone Else? The Burden of Responsibility
T he Coloradoan recently chronicled the 30-year anniversary of College Days at Colorado State University. As it happened, College Days was officially cancelled in 1987, the same year I graduated from the University of Wyoming. Yes, I was one of the out-of-town revelers who descended from Laramie to Fort Collins with one goal in mind: PARTY! I was never quite sure what we were celebrating and never understood the origins of College Days, but I was always grateful to survive what typically unraveled from a party at an apartment complex just west of CSU’s campus to a major riot where students were often injured or arrested. Back then, it was an eerie, unregulated time around colleges. Gone were the days of civil rights and anti-war protests. Students seemed to be rioting for the sake of rioting because that’s what we had been taught by former generations, but there was a lack of purpose to it. The combination of an ambivalent attitude toward alcohol abuse and a drinking age of 18 (for 3.2 beer) seemed to contribute to a number of tragic alcohol related events on college campuses in the 1980s. Fortunately, a crackdown on drunk driving, the growth of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and an increase of the drinking age to 21, served as positive steps toward heightened awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse. But tragic events still happen when alcohol and poor planning are combined. Sadly, alcohol abuse continues to be a serious issue, and not just with college kids, but adults, as well. At VanMeveren Law Group, we’ve seen firsthand the life-changing impact a night of excessive drinking can have on our clients. Injured clients frequently come to us, describing an unfortunate incident that occurred at a bar, a party, in a motor vehicle, and even on a bike. Typically, there are two involved parties in alcohol-related incidents: the injured party, or the plaintiff, and the person who caused the harm, or the defendant. But in the case where alcohol is served to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor, there may be an additional defendant, namely the bar owner or you, the social host. Colorado’s law, spelled out in C.R.S. § 12-47-801, states that bar owners and liquor retailers may be liable for selling or providing alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person or to a minor who then causes injury to another. The financial implications for us, the average homeowners, can be quite severe. While we may not be liable as homeowners for over-serving an adult, we will be liable for knowingly serving a minor or providing a place for a minor to drink, should that minor then cause harm to someone else.
With graduation parties and summer pool parties in full swing, here’s an example of what could occur. Let’s say you’re hosting a barbecue with friends and family. One of your guests brings his 15-year-old daughter, Amanda. You notice Amanda drinking the beer that you provided for the adults. You’re uncomfortable with the situation, but you don’t say anything. Later that evening, Amanda sneaks out of the party, takes her dad’s car, and hits a pedestrian.
Because you provided the alcohol and a place to consume it, you could be liable for the pedestrian’s injuries. How can you protect yourself?
First, talk to the adults and make sure they’re on the lookout for kids who may be trying to sneak an alcoholic drink. Keep the alcohol in one place, closely monitored by an adult. For a busier party, hire a server to be the exclusive provider of drinks for your guests. Finally, make a periodic sweep of your property and make sure kids haven’t taken alcohol to a secluded area in the house or around the property. To top it all off, carry a solid homeowners policy, as well as a liability umbrella policy. While we all hate to be that authority figure at our parties who shuts down the drinking, it’s important to protect our guests, innocent bystanders, and ourselves from the often-tragic consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. While a large institution like CSU can weather the storm following the damage caused by inebriated individuals, the costs for the average homeowner can be devastating — and in more ways than one. If you want to discuss this important topic in more detail or would like a complimentary review of your insurance coverage, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We are always here to answer your questions or talk about concerns you may have.
~ Bryan VanMeveren
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