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Court of Appeals Social Host Liability Case

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case Mohr v. Matthews, which involved the issue of social host liability. In Mohr, the deceased was a 19-year-old man who attended a cookout at the home of his grandparents, the defendants. The father and stepmother of the deceased were also at the cookout. The deceased arrived at the cookout at 7:00 p.m. and began drinking liquor and beer at that time. He became visibility intoxicated, but the defendants continued to serve him alcohol and encouraged him to drink despite his visible intoxication.

The night of the accident was not the first night that the grandparents had provided alcohol to their grandson. The grandparents were aware that their grandson would often drive after they provided alcohol to him, “especially when he was agitated or angry.” At the cookout, the deceased and his father got into an argument about whether the father would continue to pay for college.

Earlier on the night of the accident, the grandparents had asked the grandson to take his grandmother’s car back to Winston-Salem the next day to clean it. The grandparents never instructed the grandson not to drive that night. They also did not do anything to prevent the grandson from having access to the car keys, instead telling him that the keys were in the car’s ignition.

At 1:30 a.m., the grandparents went to bed and asked the grandson if he was going to bed too. He “replied that he was going to have one more drink.” The grandparents went to bed. Twenty minutes later, the grandson, who was still angry about the argument with his father, got in the car and started driving towards Winston-Salem. Not far from his grandparents’ house, the grandson hit a tree and the car caught fire. He died in the accident. The autopsy showed that his blood alcohol level was 0.17.

The estate of the deceased grandson filed an action against the defendant grandparents under the theory of social host liability. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the superior court granted that motion. The plaintiff appealed.

To begin its analysis, the court of appeals noted that

Our Supreme Court has held that “an individual may be held liable on a theory of common-law negligence if he (1) served alcohol to a person (2) when he knew or should have known the person was intoxicated and (3) when he knew the person would be driving afterwards.”

Although the plaintiff alleged in the complaint that the defendants served alcohol to the deceased when they knew that he was intoxicated and “knew or should have known that he had a propensity to drive when simultaneously agitated and inebriated,” the court of appeals held that the superior court’s dismissal was proper because of the deceased’s contributory negligence.

Under the doctrine of contributory negligence, the deceased was obligated to exercise the care of an ordinarily prudent person under the same or similar circumstances. If he failed to exercise such care and this failure proximately caused his injury, then he was contributorily negligent. The court of appeals has previously held that “a court may dismiss a complaint based on contributory negligence pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) ‘when the allegations of the complaint taken as true show negligence on the plaintiff's part proximately contributing to his injury, so clearly that no other conclusion can be reasonably drawn therefrom.’”

The court of appeals noted that the North Carolina Supreme Court case Sorrells v. M.Y.B. Hospitality Ventures of Asheville (1992) guided the decision in the present case. In Sorrells, the driver was at a bar with friends and was seated at a table. He ordered from the waitress and consumed a shot of tequila. Thereafter, he tried several times to order another drink from the waitress but his friends advised that he was driving and should not be served. At that time, the driver was “highly intoxicated and showed visible signs of impairment.” The driver went to the bathroom and on his way back to the table, stopped at the bar and ordered another drink. The waitress told the manager that she had been advised not to serve the driver but the manager told the bartender to serve him. When the driver finished his drink, he ignored his friends’ offers to find another way home. Instead, he got in his car and ended up crashing his car and dying.

The Court in Sorrells reasoned that the plaintiff could not recover damages because “the allegation that decedent drove his vehicle while impaired established contributory negligence as a matter of law and therefore barred his recovery of damages.” The actions of the bar did not rise to the level of willful and wanton negligence, and instead were the same level of negligence as the driver.

The plaintiff in Mohr attempted to distinguish his case from Sorrells because Sorrells was based on the Dram Shop Act and Mohr is based on the common law theory of social host liability. The court of appeals rejected this distinction because “[t]he Supreme Court’s decision… expressly analyzed the plaintiff’s claims under common law negligence principles as well as under the Dram Shop Act.” Furthermore, the court of appeals noted that “Sorrells has been cited in subsequent cases involving claims based on common law negligence where decedents voluntarily consumed alcohol and were found to be contributorily negligent in causing their own deaths.”

Next, the plaintiff argued that the defendants owed the deceased a “special duty to prevent him from harming himself” because a special blood relationship existed between the deceased and the defendants. The court acknowledged that “a parent-child relationship is recognized under the law as a special relationship.”

A finding that a special relationship exists and imposes a duty to control is justified where (1) the defendant knows or should know of the third person's violent propensities and (2) the defendant has the ability and opportunity to control the third person at the time of the third person's criminal acts. The ability and opportunity to control must be more than mere physical ability to control. Rather, it must rise to the level of custody, or legal right to control.

However, because the deceased grandson in Mohr was over the age of 18 at the time of the accident, hewas not under the legal control of his parents. Therefore, the special relationship was not applicable and the court upheld the granting of defendants’ motion to dismiss.

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