People who serve alcohol to guests who are clearly drunk were put on notice yesterday by the state's highest court that they could be held liable for injuries those guests cause in motor vehicle accidents.
Although the state Supreme Judicial Court refused to hold hosts in two cases liable for the acts of guests involved in accidents, the justices stated they would recognize "social host liability" under certain circumstances. Social host liability has been recognized in varying degrees by a few other states, amid an atmosphere of public outrage over drunken driving and its consequences.
Although the Supreme Court has recognized liability for the commercial vendors of alcohol, such as restaurants, bars and package stores, it had not decided whether a social host could be sued.
"Cases of this character must be decided one by one, applying common-law principles," stated Justice Herbert Wilkins in a decision written for four of the five justices who heard one of the cases. "The facts here do not present a case for social host liability."
But liability would be recognized, he wrote, when the host "who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and . . . because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person's injury."
"Another way of saying it," said Richard P. Campbell, an attorney for a Dennis woman who had sought social host liability in one of the cases, "is you can't invite somebody into your home, fill them with booze and say, 'See you later.' "
A spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which also argued for social host liability, praised the court for recognizing that there are circumstances in which hosts could be held liable.
"People are being killed on the highways because of drunk driving," said Arthur Licata, a lawyer and member of the MADD state coordinating committee. "Once again the SJC is taking the lead in addressing the social concerns of citizens and also providing a mechanism for the compensation for victims, in these cases the injury due to drunk drivers."
"I think the man in the street would have been very disturbed if the court had decided liability in these two cases," Licata said. "They the justices are waiting for a better case in order to make that pronouncement."
In one case, New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. had asked the court to recognize the liability of the parents of Daniel E. McGuiggan, a passenger who was killed in 1978 when he leaned out of the window of a car and struck his head on a cement post owned by the phone company, according to court records.
When McGuiggan's family sued New England Telephone, the phone company asked that the McGuiggans be held liable. The 18-year-old driver of the car, James Magee, reportedly had been served alcohol during a high school graduation party at the McGuiggans' home in Peabody.
A judge dismissed the phone company's argument and the Supreme Court upheld that decision. Wilkins wrote there was no evidence that the McGuiggans or others knew whether or not Magee was intoxicated at the party.
Justice Neil L. Lynch, while agreeing with the result of the decision, argued that if social host liability is to be recognized, it should not be decided by the courts but by laws enacted by the Legislature.
"Imposing liability on the host partially excuses the drunken driver from the consequences of his own acts," Lynch said in his concurring opinion.
In the second case, Ruth E. Langemann of Dennis, who was injured in a collision in January 1983, sued Margaret Davis, owner of a Harwich home in which the driver of the other car, a minor, had been drinking, according to court documents.
Her liability claim was rejected by a judge in Barnstable County last year, and the high court upheld that decision. Davis said that she wasn't home when her daughter put on a dinner for a girls' basketball team and that she kept no alcohol in the house.
"We reject the argument that a parent, who neither provides alcoholic beverages nor makes them available, owes a duty to travelers on the highways to supervise a party given by her minor child," the court stated.
Philip E. Murray Jr., an attorney for Davis, said he was pleased for his client but expressed concern about the practical problems the court's rulings could place on the host of a party.
He asked how hosts could be considered qualified to determine intoxication of guests and whether insurance companies would insure the homeowner for such liability.
"As far as the general citizen is concerned, it's clear now that there is a risk involved whenever you provide alcohol to a social gathering," he said.
"There's an obligation . . . to be aware of the condition of your guests.
The Boston, Massachusetts Personal Injury Law firm of Arthur F. Licata, P.C. handles Boston Globe Press for clients throughout Massachusetts
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