Drinking Buddies Not Liable as Social Hosts, Mass. Court Rules

July 2, 2007

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that friends who meet regularly after work for drinks cannot be held liable for injuries caused when one of the members of their group drives home intoxicated.

The court ruled that the friends were not liable as social hosts because they did not control the supply of liquor.

The court rejected as “too broadly” sweeping the plaintiff’s argument that one who merely purchases alcohol ordered by another at a commercial establishment automatically acquires a social host’s duty of care when he notice that the drinker is intoxicated. The ruling in the case of Richard Paul Dube vs. Ron Lanphear affirmed a decision by the Superior Court.

The plaintiff, Dube, sustained serious physical injuries when the motor vehicle that he was operating was struck by a vehicle driven by Ravindra Bhoge in the wrong direction on the southbound portion of Route 95 in Wakefield. Bhoge had, earlier that evening, consumed a number of alcoholic drinks at a Big Dog Sports Grill in Lynnfield, Mass., in the company of three friends. Dube sued Bhoge’s three drinking buddies, alleging that they were social hosts and that, knowing that Bhoge was intoxicated and intended to drive home, they negligently permitted him to continue to drink and were consequently liable for the damages that he caused.

For years, Bhoge and the three defendants met regularly on Fridays after work for drinks at nearby taverns. Over a period of time, the group developed an informal system of each person taking turns paying the bill for that night.

On the evening of February 9, 2001, the bill included four or five rum and coke drinks consumed by Bhoge. After one of the defendants paid the bill, Bhoge and another friend each ordered another rum and coke as well as a shot of Crown Royal whiskey. The record is unclear who paid for these additional drinks.

Around 9:45 pm, Bhoge headed toward the exit, leaving his coat behind despite the particularly cold weather, and indicating he was going outside to use his cell phone.

About 45 minutes after Bhoge left the bar, the defendants departed. Two of them observed Bhoge seated in the driver’s seat of his vehicle, but allegedly did not notice anything unusual in his demeanor. A third defendant then came out carrying Bhoge’s coat, opened the passenger door of Bhoge’s vehicle to give the coat to him, asked if he was okay, and received an affirmative response.

Bhoge drove from the parking lot and, after about four miles, collided head-on with the plaintiff’s vehicle. Bhoge pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Given Bhoge’s height and weight, the amount of alcohol he consumed, and Bhoge’s own statements, the court agreed that his intoxication would have been apparent.

The plaintiff argued that the defendants should be held responsible under the concept of social host liability. This doctrine recognizes “liability to a person injured by an intoxicated guest’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his guest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person’s injury.”

However, the court noted that state Supreme Judicial Court has itself limited application of the social host doctrine to circumstances in which the host possesses actual control over the liquor supply.

According to the court, the relevant inquiry is “who had the authority to deny further service of alcohol when intoxication became apparent.”

The plaintiff argues that each defendant was a social host because he paid for the drinks, and alternatively that the foursome was essentially a “drinking club” in which each hosted the others.

But the appeals court agreed with the lower court judge who concluded that the defendants could not be deemed social hosts because they did not regulate the liquor supply. “While they could refuse to continue to pay for Bhoge’s drinks, they could not require that he be ‘shut off’ by the bar; relinquish his drinks; or be ejected from the premises. In the judge’s view, those powers were vested exclusively in the liquor licensee. Given that the defendants did not control Bhoge’s ability to continue to drink at the premises, they could not be deemed his hosts, and they owed the plaintiff no duty irrespective of any awareness that they may have had that Bhoge was becoming increasingly intoxicated,” the court wrote.

Merely paying for alcohol ordered by someone else is not enough to trigger social hoist liability, the court said.

“Sharing a check is not the equivalent of being a host. That the sharing in this instance took the form of rotating payment of the entire bill, rather than equal division of the bill on each occasion, is a distinction that is meaningless. A true host in a practical sense owns or provides the liquor served to guests, and consequently is in a position to cut off that supply in the event that he observes that a guest is becoming intoxicated.”

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