During this Holiday Season, it is important to remember the tragedies and near tragedies involving alcohol which occur throughout Rhode Island during this time of year. These alcohol-related tragedies have led to the adoption of Rhode Island's Social Host Laws, which encompasse both criminal and civil liability.
From the Rhode Island Supreme Court's holdings in Martin v. Marciano and Willis v. Omar, it is clear that the Court is considering the issue of Social Host Liability. In Martin, the Court held that if a "defendant provided alcoholic beverages to underage partygoers as the plaintiff alleges, or had actual knowledge of the presence and consumption of alcohol by underage drinkers on her property, then defendant was duty-bound to exercise reasonable care to protect the plaintiff from physical assault by persons expected to be in attendance or those acting at their behest."
In Willis, the Court reasserted its longstanding precedent of refusing to adopt Social Host Liability and stated "we have only imposed such a duty where a special relationship exists. Although we have recognized social-host liability in limited circumstances, we have done so when alcohol was illegally provided to minors and injuries related. Such a special relationship is not present in the case on appeal." In declining to overturn the Court's well-settled precedent, because "no special duty - triggering relationship" existed between the hosts and the guests in this case, the Court found that the issue of liability "for social hosts whose guests cause harm is a matter that belongs in the Legislature." The Court in noting the "public policy concerns surrounding drunk driving and the resulting carnage on our highways," deferred to the legislative function of the General Assembly.
In July of 2008, Governor Carcieri signed revisions to the Social Host Laws increasing the penalties and closing a perceived loophole. The 2008 version of the statute prohibits the consumption of alcohol by underage persons anywhere on a homeowner's property. The revisions also address the possession of alcoholic beverages by underage persons and the transportation of alcoholic beverages by underage persons.
For more information regarding Social Host Liability, please see my article on Social Host Liability which was published in the November/December 2009 edition of the Rhode Island Bar Journal and which is attached to my Attorney Profile page with the permission of the Rhode Island Bar Journal.