As the holidays are among us, it is important to take into consideration the significant liability individuals and businesses can face when serving alcohol at their residence. We must address the harsh reality that although we all know better than to get behind the wheel of a car when intoxicated, it is likely inevitable for the many families and businesses who have incorporated drinking as a part of the routine family traditions during this time of year.

Many states have implemented what is commonly referred to as “Dram Shop” (named based on an outdated unit of measurement of alcohol called the “dram”) and “Social Host Liability” laws which places a business which sells alcohol, or the host of a gathering in which alcohol is provided, liable for the negligence of the intoxicated guests who were served. We have most commonly seen this liability take place when the intoxicated guest then drives his vehicle and gets into an accident, and it can be proven that the social host or business knew the guest was drunk, and continued to serve them.

California has significantly restricted social gatherings, business hours, and what a business can serve to guests in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles County in particular, has further shut down restaurants and bars who may now only provide take-out options without any indoor or outdoor dining options. In spite of this, it is known that some businesses, and social gatherings, will likely ignore the restrictions placed on them and allow more guests than recommended to visit for the holidays, and restaurants will likely continue to serve diners in secret. Although our firm cannot recommend any business or household to remain out of compliance with these restrictions, the reality is some will, and the holidays are the prime time of year for this type of liability.

California Civil Code section 1714 explicitly states that the “furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another California dram Shop and by an intoxicated person.” Some have misunderstood this law to mean that California does not follow the Social host Liability and Dram Shop laws common in many other states. This is not the case.

Before providing these exceptions, it is important to note that Alcohol Consumption increases dramatically during the holidays. The company, Alcohol Monitoring Systems, found that over 450,000 monitored DUI offenders increased their drinking rates by 33 percent between Thanksgiving and New Years day. Last year, in 2019, the California Highway Patrol reported 800 drunk-driving accidents took place on the night before Thanksgiving, and reported 10 fatalities, and 271 DUI arrests on Christmas alone.

California Civil Code section 1714 applies when any parent, guardian, or other adult, at his or her residence, knowingly furnishes alcohol to a person who the host knows (or should know) is under 21 years of age, may be found liable for injuries or death. The statute itself has included an employer’s employees at a holiday work party to be considered guests of a social host, for the purpose of this type of liability. Additionally, when a business is licensed to sell alcohol and that business does in fact sell, give away, or otherwise provide alcohol to any “obviously intoxicated minor,” the business will be held civilly liable for the injuries and death to that minor and those third parties they injure, under business and Professions Code section 25602.1. This code additionally allows criminal liability to any person or business who provides alcohol to (1) any habitual or common drunkard; and (2) to any obviously intoxicated person.

Although California has provided restrictions to what liability will be assessed against social hosts and businesses who serve alcohol, this protection is not infinite and will be most prominent during the holiday season. The common person believes that social hosts and businesses are always liable for the actions of those persons who became intoxicated at their business or hosting venue. If faced with one of these lawsuits, it is important to seek legal counsel with knowledge in the areas of social host and dram shop liability to properly assert your rights and protect your interests.