“Does a young adult, over the age of eighteen but under the age of twenty-one — an adult under the lawful drinking age — have a duty not to facilitate the service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest in his home if the guest is expected to operate a motor vehicle?”
That is the question New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Albin recently asked in a ruling handed down on September 17, 2020.
Background of the case
In November 2014, Narleski was drinking at Zwierzynski’s parents’ home, with another friend, Nicholas Gomes. After leaving Zwierzynski’s, visibly intoxicated, Gomes lost control of his car on Route 9, resulting in an accident that killed Narleski.
Narleski’s family filed a wrongful death action against Gomes, his parents, and Amboy Liquor, who allegedly sold the liquor to the underage teens. In response, Amboy Liquor filed an action against Zwierzynski to hold him responsible for hosting Narleski and Gomes and facilitating the use of alcohol.
The court at the time determined that Zwierzynski held no liability and held no legal duty to Narleski regarding Gomes’ intoxication. They dismissed the wrongful death case against him. An appellate ruling agreed with this ruling, but stated that, going forward, “An underage adult shall owe a common law duty to injured parties to desist from facilitating the drinking of alcohol by underage adults in his place of residence, regardless of whether he owns, rents, or manages the premises.”
Now, because of this precedent, the Supreme Court vacated the original judgement for Zwierzynski, and reinstated proceedings consistent with the current opinion.
Social hosts and liability in New Jersey
This ruling may change the landscape of drunk driving proceedings and liability across New Jersey. Under current state social host laws, a social host has a duty of care if they are serving alcohol in their home to a guest who may be operating a motor vehicle. However, this law has typically only applied to the adults who owned the home. The night of the accident that killed Narleski, Zwierzynski’s parents were not at home and were unaware of any underage drinking.
The third-party lawsuit from Amboy Liquor held that Zwierzynski and his parents improperly supervised his guests, which lead to Narleski’s death.
In trial court, Zwierzynski’s parents were cleared of wrongdoing. Zwierzynski was also cleared due to the fact that he did not own, lease, or manage the property, and that although he “provided his friends with a place to consume alcohol, he did not have a duty to supervise his adult friends during their consumption.”
However, the Supreme Court now states the following:
We now hold that an underage adult defendant may be held civilly liable to a third-party drunk driving victim if the defendant facilitated the use of alcohol by making his home available as a venue for underage drinking, regardless of whether he is a leaseholder or titleholder of the property; if the guest causing the crash became visibly intoxicated in the defendant’s home; and if it was reasonably foreseeable that the visibly intoxicated guest would leave the residence to operate a motor vehicle and cause injury to another. An underage adult, by law, may sue and be sued, may drive a motor vehicle, and has the same civil obligations as any other citizen. He too is bound by the social compact. His age does not make him immune from legal responsibility for the violation of an established duty that is intended to protect others from foreseeable harm.
What this ruling means
For victims of drunk driving accidents, this ruling may bring welcome accountability. Closing the gap between “adult” and “young adult” – the ages between 18 and 21 – helps hold the right people responsible in the event of a fatal or serious DWI accident.
Restaurants, bars and even your friends and acquaintances have a legal duty when providing or serving alcohol. The attorneys at Eichen Crutchlow Zaslow, LLP have obtained more than $750 million on behalf their clients. They understand dram shop and social host laws, and can help hold the right people liable if you are injured in an accident that may involve alcohol. We have offices in Edison, Red Bank, or Toms River, New Jersey. Call us today for a consultation at 732-777-0100 or fill out our contact form.