Graduation Season Increases Drunk Driving Risks in Massachusetts

May is graduation season and is often a time of great joy and family gatherings.

Don’t let irresponsible use of alcohol or drugs turn the season into a tragedy. graduationsafety-300x119

There are more than 100 high schools in Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth and Middlesex counties. And the Boston area is home to more than 50 colleges and universities, including Boston University, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Our drunk driving injury lawyers in Boston urge parents and party hosts to take seriously the responsibility of safe hosting this graduation season. While additional liability can result from serving alcohol to those under age 21, even those hosting graduation parties for college students can face significant liability when an intoxicated guest causes injury, whether as a result of a motor-vehicle collision, assault or by other means.

Graduation Party Host Legal Liability in Massachusetts

Late last month, national and state leaders urged Massachusetts lawmakers to do more when it comes to drunk-driving prevention and seat-belt use, according to the Worcester Telegram. Representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation spoke in favor of proposed legislation (S 7) aimed at improving motor vehicle safety in the Commonwealth. Provisions that have the support of Gov. Charlie Baker include primary enforcement of seat-belt laws, restricted electronics use by drivers and mandatory ignition-interlock devices for DUI offenders.

Relaxed marijuana laws are also having an impact on road safety in the two years since Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana. Boston University News Service reports marijuana was the most prevalent drug, aside from alcohol, involved in fatal crashes. From 2013-2017, marijuana was believed to have been a factor in nearly one-third of fatal traffic collisions in Massachusetts.

Legislative action is desirable to reduce the long-term road risks. But it’s the party hosts that will have the biggest impact on road safety this graduation season. The state’s dram shop law is found in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 138 Section 69 and holds commercial establishments responsible for injuries resulting from serving liquor to an intoxicated person. Dram shop is an old English term dating to the days where shots of liquor (drams) were served over the counter. Dram shop laws in some states also hold social hosts responsible. While that is not the case in Massachusetts, that doesn’t mean social hosts are not held legally liable by both legal precedent and state statute.

These are complex cases and an experienced Boston drunk driving injury attorney will be best able to identify and hold responsible all parties to blame for a drunk driving collision.

Massachusetts is among the states where both state law and court decisions hold accountable both commercial servers and social hosts when intoxicated guests cause injury. According to the Insurance Information Institute, other states that hold both commercial servers and social hosts responsible by both statute and case law, are Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

Despite progress made over the last two decades, drunk driving remains the leading cause of death on the roadways. More than 10,000 people a year are killed in traffic collisions with intoxicated motorists, accounting for one death every 48 minutes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Under Massachusetts law (Massachusetts Gen. Law Ch. 139, Sec. 34) parents who furnish alcohol to underage guests in their home can be criminally prosecuted and face up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,000.

However, it’s the civil liability that can be even more consequential.

Social host liability was first recognized by Massachusetts courts in McGuiggan v. New England Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986). However, these are not easy cases to prove. In fact, plaintiff in the McGuiggan case lost a battle to sue party hosts for a drunk-driving death because the court ruled the hosts did not have reason to know the driver was intoxicated. But, in the precedent-setting decision, the court recognized a host’s responsibility in cases where a guest’s intoxication is known or should have been known, writing that the deciding factor is “whether the social host unreasonably created a risk of injury to a person who the social host should reasonably have foreseen might be injured as a result of the guest’s intoxication.”

Intervening court decisions have narrowed the scope of McGuiggan, primarily by generally ruling hosts must have control over the alcohol served and consumed.

Parent’s also accept responsibility when they permit a teen to obtain a driver’s license. And often a teen’s vehicle is owned by a parent, which also imparts additional liability and responsibility as vehicles are recognized in Massachusetts under the legal doctrine of dangerous instrumentality. Negligence claims against parents or vehicle owners may proceed under legal theories of presumption of control or negligent entrustment.

These claims are often filed against a homeowner’s insurance policy. Homeowner’s insurance liquor liability is usually carried in limits of $100,000 to $300,000 on most policies. Parents, homeowners and vehicle owners may be held personally responsible for additional damages.

Safe Massachusetts Graduation Party Tips

The Essex District Attorney’s Office is among the many organizations in Massachusetts urging parents and teenagers to take graduation safety seriously. In addition to traffic accidents, alcohol and drug use at graduation parties can result in physical or sexual assault, vandalism and other consequences that can impact a teen’s future plans, including college or military acceptance.

The Insurance Information Institute offers a number of safe-party tips for parents, homeowners and hosts.

  • Consider holding the party somewhere other than your home.
  • Hire a professional bartender.
  • Encourage safe alcohol consumption and designated drivers.
  • Offer non-alcoholic alternatives.
  • Limit alcohol services and stop service early.
  • Encourage safe driving, seat-belt use, taxi cabs and ride sharing.

Committing to safe-party hosting will reduce the risk of turning your celebration into a tragedy, while also reducing the chances that your will be found criminally or civilly liable.

If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston drunk driving accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources

Public safety remains concern two years after legalization of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, April 12, 2019, Boston University News Service