LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hosts who charge admission to parties may be held legally responsible if a drunken underage guest is hurt or injures someone else, California’s high court has ruled.
A cover charge amounts to a sale of alcohol, and state law creates liability for those who sell alcohol to obviously intoxicated minors, the state Supreme Court said in the unanimous decision Monday.
The ruling, which overturned two lower court decisions, was most likely to affect student parties, where underage drinking and cover charges are common.
“We should err on the side of permitting liability, for the possibility of liability may provide a strong deterrent against the provision of alcohol to minors, especially those who are already obviously intoxicated,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court.
The case stemmed from a 2007 party organized by then-20-year-old Jessica Manosa at a rental home owned by her parents, though without their permission. Andrew Ennabe, a 19-year-old student at California State University, Fullerton, died after being hit by a car driven by a man who had been asked to leave the gathering.
Ennabe’s family sought to hold Manosa liable for his death, through her parents and their homeowners insurance.
Strangers who showed up at Manosa’s party were charged $3 to $5 at the door to cover the cost of liquor.
A trial court and an appeals court previously decided Manosa was not legally responsible because she did not intend to profit from the entrance fee, but merely to defray the cost of the alcohol.
Her attorneys argued that the ruling would make all sorts of hosts vulnerable if they asked for any compensation or even demanded a dish at a potluck, they insisted.
“The assertion is exaggerated,” Werdegar wrote. “One does not normally charge guests an entrance fee to attend bar mitzvahs, weddings or gallery openings.”
Amer Innabi, who represents Ennabe’s parents, called the ruling “common sense.”
Manosa’s attorney declined to comment.
The driver of the car, Thomas Garcia, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a 14-year sentence. He said he had been drinking heavily before he arrived at the party and had no memory of hitting Ennabe.
In the 1970s, the California Supreme Court made social hosts who serve alcohol to intoxicated guests legally liable for their harmful behavior. The Legislature responded by creating immunity for hosts, but later carved out an exception for individuals who sell alcohol, whether they are licensed or not.
Since Ennabe’s death, the Legislature has further expanded liability, making parents, guardians and “any adult” responsible if they knowingly serve alcohol at their homes to minors. That law affects only adult hosts, whereas Monday’s ruling for Ennabe’s parents could now open the way for lawsuits against minors as long as cover charges were involved.