The state's highest court ruled yesterday that bars and clubs may be held liable for alcohol-related accidents stemming from underage drinking even when bartenders are unaware that drinks handed to adults are headed to minors. In a ruling that could doom free- wheeling wedding receptions and family parties, a divided court said establishments serving liquor can't turn a blind eye to underage drinking The case, which involved the death of a 17-year-old girl who got drunk at a country club party, was the first time the Supreme Judicial Court had considered an alcohol liability case that did not involve the direct "hand- to- hand" transfer of alcohol from a server to a minor.
While the decision does not hold owners liable for every accident resulting from underage drinking on their premises, it requires owners to make good faith efforts to prevent it.
The decision also does not change so-called "host liability" case law -- the serving of alcohol in private homes -- since the case involved a commercial establishment.
The case before the court involved the 1987 death of 17-year- old Julie Tobin, who got drunk at a private party at the Norwood Country Club. After arguing with her boyfriend, she stumbled onto nearby Route 1 and was killed.
Two hours after she died, Tobin's blood alcohol level was .. 229 percent -- more than twice the limit at which a person is considered legally drunk.
Her parents sued the country club in Superior Court and won a $206,000 judgment, but the trial judge set aside the verdict. Yesterday, the SJC reinstituted it.
Arthur F. Licata, who represented the Tobin family, said the decision shields minors and the public from harm and ensures that restaurants and bartenders take steps to prevent alcohol-related tragedies.
Without yesterday's ruling, "there's this big hole in the law and minors can drink and no one is held accountable because there is no direct service of alcohol to them," Licata said. "That doesn't make sense."
But the attorney representing the country club said the broad ruling could force the facility into bankruptcy.
"This decision imposes an unrealistic burden on restaurant owners," said Lori A. Cianciulli "If a minor gets ahold of alcohol at your party, then you are responsible."
Supervisors would need to be stationed at every table during functions -- even sipping minors' drinks -- to prevent lawsuits, she said.
Cianciulli said Norwood Country Club's insurer is reluctant to pay since the accident happened off its premises.
"I don't think this decision does anybody any good," she said.
Tobin was the date of a 16-year-old boy whose family was holding a party at the country club on Sept. 5, 1987. An adult purchased drinks for several teen- agers at the party, including many "sea breezes," a fruity vodka drink, according to the SJC decision.
The party lasted for five hours and had between 70 and 100 guests in a function room separate from the bar, the decision said.
The bartender could not see what was going on in the function room, which was supervised by another bartender. That bartender, who was not serving drinks, was a relative of the family and had three drinks himself, the decision said.
"This is a tough area," said Bruce Potter, director of membership services at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. "It is extremely difficult for one or two bartenders to catch something like that."
But Justice Charles Fried, writing for the majority, said the club should have known what was going on. "The club's knowledge is measured by the cumulative knowledge of its employees," he wrote.
But two justices, in a dissenting opinion, questioned whether any liquor establishment can monitor the drinking of all minors present. Justices Francis P. O'Connor and Neil L. Lynch were not convinced that any employees of the country club knew minors were drinking.
"[The decision] is unfair to the defendant and suggests that, in the future, clubs, innkeepers, restaurants, bars, hotels and other purveyors of alcoholic beverages may be held liable for injuries sustained in circumstances not realistically within their control," O'Connor wrote