Social Host Laws: How to Protect Yourself (and Your Homeowners Insurance) During Holiday Parties



America’s prolonged holiday season is about to kick-off. It starts around Halloween and runs through New Year’s Day. If you’re planning a party, you need to know about Social Host Laws that may leave you liable for accidents and injuries that occur because you served alcohol to your guests. The first target for claims will be your homeowner’s insurance. Before you send out the party invitations, check your policy or call your agent to make sure you have sufficient liability coverage. 


You should also check your state and local laws. Some 35 states and the District of Columbia have social host laws on the books regarding guests of all ages. That may have changed, so don’t take for granted that you’re not affected. Be aware, too, that all 50 states make it illegal (with a very few exceptions such as religious services) to serve alcohol to anyone under age 21. Social host laws extend that prohibition to allowing alcohol to be consumed on your property, whether or not you were personally poured or were even home at the time. Sobering thought if you’re a parent. 


Basically, social host liability extends the responsibility for the impact of alcohol consumption beyond the drinker to those who provide it. Depending on where you live, that can mean you’re liable for injuries to the guest who drank at your party and drove, the passengers in the guest’s vehicle and damages and injuries that guest does to other drivers, their passengers, property and pedestrians. Other state social host liability laws limit your liability to injuries sustained while the drunken guest is in your home or on your property – like if after her fourth Cosmo she crashes through your sliding glass door.  By the way, you don’t have to be a homeowner to be liable. If you’re the legal resident of a rental and you over-serve guests, better be sure you have adequate liability on your rental insurance policy. 


The penalties for over-pouring can be stiff, especially if your guest was minor.  In addition to the claim against your homeowner insurance policy, you may face monetary fines ranging as high as $2,500, criminal charges (in Rhode Island, for instance, you can go to jail for up to 6 months for a first offense), and civil lawsuits for medical bills, pain and suffering and property damage. 


In addition to checking your homeowner’s insurance policy for exclusions, limitations and risks, and increasing your liability coverage, you can take some proactive steps to avoid being on the wrong end of a social host liability law. 

  • Throw your party at a restaurant or club and let the business serve the drinks.
  • Don’t let guests mix or pour their own drinks. Hire a professional bartender to do that and empower him or her to cut off guests who have had too much. Don’t force refills on guests.
  • Take guests’ car keys when they arrive. Make it the price of admission. Talk to each guest before you return the keys and don’t surrender car keys to anyone you think is too impaired to drive. Call a cab or let them sleep it off in your spare room. Even if they argue with you, they’ll thank you in the morning.
  • Always serve food with alcohol and provide non-alcoholic alternatives. 
  • If you are going out of town, alert a trusted neighbor to call the police to break up any underage partying. And lock up your alcohol in a safe place.
  • Brush up on non-alcoholic recipes. 
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