REDDING, Calif. – Republican and Democrat lawmakers are joining in support of a Consumer Attorneys of California/Mothers Against Drunk Driving sponsored bill that hopes to save young lives by stripping away the absolute immunity adult "social hosts" have had in California for injuries caused by or suffered by minors who are furnished alcohol. California has long been guided by the principle that "it is the consumption of alcohol, and not the furnishing of alcohol" that causes the impairment and consequent recklessness or injuries. Since 1978 the single exception to this immunity is in the case of a "licensed liquor provider" furnishing alcohol to "an obviously intoxicated minor." West’s Ann.Cal.Bus. & Prof.Code §§ 25602, 25602.1, 25658. The proposed legislation, entitled the Teen Alcohol Safety Act (AB 2486 (Feuer)), holds adults civilly accountable if they knowingly provide alcohol to minors.
The campaign for this bill is headed by a Redding mother of a 17-year-old who died of alcohol poisoning while spending the night at a friend’s house. The 16-year-old friend was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but the case was eventually dismissed by a Shasta County Judge. Following that result, the mother took her case to Sacramento.
Although I was one of the original attorneys in the case of Strang v. Cabrol (1984) 37 Cal.3d 720, a California Supreme Court case that shut the door on social host liability for teen drinking, I applaud this new effort to increase the responsibility of parents and adults that furnish liquor to minors.
At the time the original legislation was adopted, and the Supreme Court spoke upon it, there seemed to be a sense of crisis in California that liability principles were "running amuck," that every "deep pocket" was a target, and that even innocent citizens were being dragged in and held accountable for the irresponsibility of others. Since that time, however, criminal penalties for drunk driving have greatly increased, now including significant jail sentences. Further, strict penalties have been adopted for minor drivers who who are found to have any detectible amount of alcohol on board.
Those are both positive actions that hopefully lead to safer roads. However, one area that has been left to laissez faire development concerns the responsibility that an adult or parent should have when they knowingly furnish liquor to minors. It does not take a genius to deduce the potential catastrophic effects that alcohol could have on the consuming minor or those that become victims of their conduct. With immunity to the furnishing adult, we really have immunity for everyone. That is because minors seldom have the financial wherewithall to respond to the damages and harms that they have caused. Further, the minor is in the worst position, developmentally, to appreciate the potential dangers of his or her actions. So, it appears that with this new legislation, the burden will shift back to those who are often in the best position to control the situation and prevent the harm. This is as it should be.