It is every parent’s nightmare. Their child is involved in a motor vehicle accident involving a drunk driver and is killed. In their desire to hold someone accountable, they sue everyone they can think of who might have contributed to their child’s death. The Appellate Division in Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, Docket No. A-5144-17T4 (App. Div. 2019) ruled on a case that expanded somewhat the circle of persons who may be so responsible.
The facts of the case are tragic. Four underage adult friends go to the liquor store and illegally purchase alcohol. The group goes back to one home, where mom is not home, nor aware of their intent to drink. The facts of the case indicate that the mother did not keep any liquor in her house and that she did not drink regularly. The night takes a tragic turn when two of the friends get in a car to drive to another friend’s house. During the trip, the driver loses control of the car, and the passenger is tragically killed.
The parents of the deceased passenger then sue the liquor store, which ironically was the person who bought the alcohol in the first place. The store had failed to check his ID. They also sued the driver, who was intoxicated. The store then brought a claim against the friend where the four drank; and also against his mother and father, for allowing the four friends to drink.
It is a given that the legal age in New Jersey to both purchase, and drink, alcoholic beverages is 21. It is also a given that under the law, a person is considered an “adult” at age 18. New Jersey law generally holds a bar or liquor store liable if it sells alcohol to an underage person if that leads to someone getting hurt. New Jersey law also holds a “social host” liable in certain circumstances if they are legally serve alcohol to a guest who then gets involved in an accident. However, until now, the law did not cover a person who illegally served alcohol to an under-age adult. The store and the driver resolved the claims against them. The issue presented to the Court was whether the 19-year-old friend could be liable for allowing the other three friends to drink in his room, and also whether his parents could be responsible because they somehow “allowed” this drinking to take place. The court ruled that the mother, who was not home and who did not know her son had invited friends to drink, was not liable, nor could she be liable. They ruled that the father, who did not live in the house, also was not liable. Lastly, the court determined that their 19-year-old son could not be liable under current law for serving alcohol to the other three friends, since all of them were legally “adults” even though they were not legal to drink.
Going forward, however, the court changed the law. The court held that in the future, an adult who is under the legal drinking age does have an obligation to prevent drinking by underage adults (persons between 18 and 21) in his or her home or residence. The Court determined that this was a reasonable extension of current law and public policy.
Claims involving drinking, and who might be responsible for injuries caused by an intoxicated person, are very difficult and fact-specific. If you or someone you know has questions about liquor liability, call our attorneys at SGKLegal, (732) 613-8000.
Written by SGKLegal Attorney, Larry Kroll, June 12, 2019