The death of a teenager due to a drunk driving crash left one North Carolina family devastated – and seeking justice. They sought to do so through North Carolina’s Social Host Liability law.
State courts recognize under general negligence principles of common law, a social host may be liable for injuries caused by intoxicated guests. This was established in the 1992 North Carolina Supreme Court decision in Hart v. Ivey. Although Hart concerned injuries caused by intoxicated minors, the court’s language indicates liability could also result from injuries caused by intoxicated adult guests.
(Dram shop laws may also result in liability for establishments that provide alcohol, though circumstances are limited and damages capped at $500,000.) The law specifically holds licensees are not liable for injuries sustained by a voluntarily intoxicated person.
Our Greensboro drunk driving accident lawyers know these cases must be carefully considered prior to filing.
In the recent case of Mohr v. Matthews, plaintiffs filed a wrongful death lawsuit based on the theory of social host liability held by defendants.
According to court records, decedent was 19-years-old when he attended a cookout at the home of his paternal grandparents, an event both his father and stepmother also attended. Plaintiffs assert the minor’s grandparents (defendants) provided their son with liquor and beer throughout the evening, beginning at around 7 p.m. The teen continued to consume alcohol until he was visibly intoxicated. Plaintiffs allege defendants continued to encourage the teen to continue drinking, even seeing his noticeably increasing intoxication level.
Prior to this occasion, it was alleged defendants had provided the teen with alcohol at numerous other social gatherings at their home – despite the fact he was underage. Defendants were also reportedly aware the teen frequently drove after consuming alcohol at their home, particularly when he was angry or agitated.
On the evening in question, decedent and his father argued about whether his father would provide money for college. At no point in the evening did anyone tell the teen not to drive or try to take away his keys.
After defendants went to bed, the teen got into his car, apparently determined to drive home, crashed into a tree and his vehicle caught fire. He died at the scene. His blood-alcohol level was reported to be 0.17 percent at the time of the crash – more than twice the legal limit for an adult.
Plaintiffs sued defendants alleging negligence proximately causing the teen’s death. Trial court granted a defense motion to dismiss, and plaintiff appealed. Plaintiff argued he pled a proper cause of action for negligence under a common law theory of social host liability. Specifically, he asserted defendants:
- Served alcohol to a person
- Knowing or having the means to know the person was intoxicated
- When it was known the person would later be driving
However, trial court affirmed on grounds of contributory negligence. That is, decedent’s own actions deviated from an objective standard of behavior that would indicate the care an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances to avoid injury.
In North Carolina, claims can be dismissed on grounds of contributory negligence when the facts show negligence by plaintiff (or decedent) proximately contributed to his injury so clearly no other conclusion can reasonably be drawn.
Plaintiff argued defendants owed decedent a heightened duty of care because they had a special relationship that bound them to act with a greater degree of caution. While the court held that may have been the case if decedent had been a minor, he was over 18 at the time of the incident, and thus was not under the legal control of his parents or grandparents.
While many family gatherings will be held in North Carolina this holiday season, we would encourage all social hosts to act responsibly by ensuring minors and those visibly intoxicated are not served alcohol – particularly when there is knowledge they may later get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Mohr v. Matthews, Dec. 2, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Graciano v. Mercury General Corp. – Elements of Bad Faith Insurance Claim, Nov. 29, 2014, Greensboro Car Accident Lawyer Blog