Underage drinking and house parties: Am I liable for my guests?


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UPDATED: 2017-12-14T16:52:01.186Z
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A group of friends toasting glasses of wine.

The holiday season brings with it excitement, hectic schedules and of course, social gatherings with family and friends. Everyone seems to have a friend who has a home where all of the best parties are held. If that house is your home, then there’s more to think about than whether or not there will be enough food. You should also check your homeowners insurance policy to see what it covers.

“Social host” liability

Many states have what are called “social host” liability laws, which clarify the responsibilities a homeowner accepts when alcohol is served to guests in a home. What these laws cover varies considerably from state to state, so familiarizing yourself with your state’s provisions before having a party is a good idea. The Insurance Information Institute reports that 43 states have some form of “social host” liability laws on the books.

In some states, social host laws cover only accidents or injuries that occur on the host’s property, while other states extend the liability if a third party is injured elsewhere. Some states have very few liabilities that extend to hosts, the burden in those states is on the individual who is consuming the alcohol.

Some states’ social host laws cover only civil liability, while a handful of states also extend criminal liability to hosts in certain circumstances, like knowingly continuing to serve someone who has had too much, or providing alcohol to minors. This is an important distinction because while many homeowners insurance policies will cover civil damages, there is typically an exemption for criminal liability — meaning, in those cases, your insurance would not cover those costs. Examine your policy closely, as some place caps on “liquor liability coverage.”

In some states, it is the host’s responsibility to determine if a guest has had enough, and continuing to provide alcohol to someone who is already intoxicated makes the host liable for any damage or injuries caused by the guest.

Underage drinking

Underage drinking, or serving alcohol to minors, will almost always be considered violating the law. (There are some very limited exceptions for parents serving alcohol to their own children.) Homeowners insurance policies typically exclude coverage for “criminal acts,” and knowingly serving alcohol to a minor would be considered criminal.

Parents sometimes hope to manage underage drinking using the logic of “at least they are at home,” which eliminates the potential for their teen to drive while intoxicated. This carries considerable risks for a homeowner, as any accidents or injuries that might occur thereafter would not be covered.

Prevention is the best strategy

There are steps you can take to reduce your risks. Some of the recommendations from III.org are:

  1. If you can, have the party at a restaurant or bar. This shifts the liability from you to the serving venue.
  2. Consider hiring a bartender. Bartenders are experienced and generally know when an individual has exceeded his/her limit.
  3. Don’t drink too much yourself — you’ll be less likely to notice if one of your guests has had too much to drink.
  4. Always, always encourage guests to have a designated driver. It’s just a smart idea.
  5. Have food available, and predetermine a point at which you will stop serving alcohol and switch over to non-alcoholic beverages.

Parties should be a fun and enjoyable time for everyone, but impaired driving is no small matter. Neither is serving alcohol to minors. Depending on the state, if anything happens you could be held criminally liable. Taking some commonsense precautions beforehand and knowing what your state laws are — and what your policy covers — should be at the top of your party planning list.


The content on this site is offered only as a public service to the web community and does not constitute solicitation or provision of legal advice. This site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an insurance company or an attorney licensed or authorized to practice in your jurisdiction. You should always consult a suitably qualified attorney regarding any specific legal problem or matter. The comments and opinions expressed on this site are of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the insurance company or any individual attorney.

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