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Social Host Liability in North Carolina

In North Carolina, a social host can be liable for injuries caused by a person 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.”  (Camalier v. Jeffries 1995)

Historically, in North Carolina, “it was not a tort to either sell or give intoxicating liquor to ordinary able-bodied men, and no cause of action existed against one furnishing liquor in favor of those injured by the intoxication of the person so furnished.”  (Hutchens v. Hankins 1983)  The rationale behind this was that the proximate cause of the injury was the drinking of the liquor, not the furnishing of it.

In 1983, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held in Hutchen v. Hankins that “the furnishing of an alcoholic beverage to an intoxicated person may be a proximate cause of injuries inflicted by that individual upon a third person.”  The court limited its holding to the context of a vendor of alcoholic beverages who provides drinks to an intoxicated customer and specifically declined to decide whether “a noncommercial furnisher of alcoholic beverages may be subject to civil liability.”

Less than 10 years later, the North Carolina Supreme Court weighed in on this issue in Hart v. Ivey (1992).  In that case, party hosts served beer to a minor guest who became intoxicated and then drove, subsequently causing injuries to the plaintiff.  The party hosts charged guests $2 per person, but the court treated them as social hosts not as vendors.

The court began its analysis by defining negligence:

Actionable negligence is the failure to exercise that degree of care which a reasonable and prudent person would exercise under similar conditions. A defendant is liable for his negligence if the negligence is the proximate cause of injury to a person to whom the defendant is under a duty to use reasonable care.

The court then held that it was negligent conduct to serve “an alcoholic beverage to a person they knew or should have known was under the influence of alcohol and that the defendants knew that the person who was under the influence of alcohol would shortly thereafter drive an automobile.”  Furthermore, a party host is “under a duty to the people who travel on the public highways not to serve alcohol to an intoxicated individual who was known to be driving.”

In holding that a social host could be liable for serving an intoxicated guest alcohol, the court asserted that they were “not recognizing a new claim” but instead “applying established negligence principles and under those principles the plaintiffs have stated claims.”

In 1995, the North Carolina Supreme Court further explained social host liability in Camalier v. Jeffries.  In that case, Jeffries attended a party during which time he consumed 3 or 4 drinks, and numerous other guests testified he did not appear intoxicated.  After leaving the party, he was involved in an accident which killed the plaintiff.

The court set forth the social host liability as recognize in Hart as follows:

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.

Applying the factors required for liability, the court determined that the second factor was not met because although plaintiffs showed that Jeffries was intoxicated after the party, they did not introduce any evidence showing that Jeffries was intoxicated while at the party.  Meanwhile, the defendants introduced various testimony of other guests who said that Jeffries did not appear intoxicated, so the host did not know or should not have known that Jeffries was intoxicated.

Subsequent cases dealing with social host liability have laid out what evidence a plaintiff might need to show that a host should have known that a person was intoxicated.  In Estate of Mullis v. Monroe Oil Co., Inc. (1998), Blount bought alcohol from several vendors, which he drank with his friends.  Later that evening, he drove and crashed his car, killing himself and the three passengers.  Although that case involved a vendor of alcohol, the court employed the negligence analysis used in Hart and Camalier, instead of using a statutory provision to hold the vendor liable.  In determining that the vendor had no reason to know that Blount was intoxicated, it summarized that the evidence showed that “[s]everal other teenagers stated that Blount's speech was normal that evening, that he was walking straight and had control over his body motions, and that he did not smell of alcohol.”

Another case in which the Court of Appeals laid out potential evidence of noticeable intoxication was Smith v. Winn-Dixie Charlotte, Inc. (2001).  That case involved a defendant who had provided alcohol to a friend who, after drinking it, was involved in a car accident that injured the plaintiff.  The court held that the defendant was not liable for the injury to the plaintiff because there was no evidence that he knew or should have known that his friend was intoxicated.  “Evidence the defendant knew or should have known a person was "noticeably intoxicated" might include, but is not limited to, such outward signs of intoxication as slurred speech, lack of control over body motions, and an odor of alcohol.”

North Carolina courts have also provided some analysis of the third factor in the social host liability - that the host knew that the person would be driving afterwards.  In Mullis, the court held that there was no evidence to show that Blount would be driving after purchasing the alcohol because “every time he purchased alcohol from defendants, he was driven to the store by other persons and was not driving a car.”

A Court of Appeals case, Swinton v. La Fogata (2003), provided additional analysis of the third factor.  In that case, Swinton was at a party where he ordered and drank alcohol.  After the party, he began to drive home but was involved in a car accident, from which he died as a result.  In concluding that the plaintiff did meet their burden on the third element, the court stated that

The decedent was socializing with a group of at least ten people at the restaurant. Indeed, any member or members of the group could have been driving. Conversely, it is possible that the patrons intended to take a taxi, walk, or seek some other means of transportation to get home. In short, nothing put defendant on notice that Ryan Swinton was intoxicated and would be driving afterwards.

Attorney Matthew Fleishman was interviewed on December 31, 2014 regarding the current state of social host liability. A clip of the interview is below:

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