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Ask A Lawyer: Are we at risk serving alcohol at the new year’s party?

Q:  We are having a new year’s party with about 40 people.  We plan to serve liquor (including wine).  If someone drinks too much, falls, or gets abusive, or drives away and causes an accident, are we liable?  S.R., Manhattan Beach

A:  In California, the laws for dram shops (businesses that sell alcohol), and social hosts as well, generally protect those serving alcohol from liability.  But, the vendor or you (a host) can be held liable for serving a minor (this is set forth in Civil Code Section 1714(d) which you can find online).  Also, knowingly over-serving someone, or serving an “habitual or common drunkard”, is indeed risky and notably ill-advised (in fact, it is a misdemeanor under California Business and Professions Code Section 25602).

Bottom line: We have a litigious state, unfortunately.  So, be prudent. If need be, make sure to limit the pouring, or, if someone appears to be tipsy, get him or her a taxi. And, to repeat, do not serve alcohol to minors.

Q:  Paranoia no doubt, but we are having a dinner party at our house.  We are doing the cooking.  Earlier this year we went to a friend’s house and two people claimed they got ill from something they ate.  We are very responsible, everything should be fine, but if someone actually got ill is that something that can cost us?  A.B., Long Beach

A:  When we invite people onto our premises we have a basic duty of due care, specifically that the premises are safe from unreasonable risk of harm. So, you will no doubt take sensible precautions with the foods and the cooking, let alone your home.

Food poisoning can be claimed, particularly if more than one person gets ill; common sense tells us that it probably was something they both ate, at the same place, at or around the same time. But, testing of what is in that person’s (or those persons’) systems is of consequence as well.  After all, it is flu season, so if someone who has dinner at your house then later complains you caused their illness, it may not be so.  Further, if sadly there is food poisoning, is it something you did, or something that was in the foods you purchased about which you had no notice (and thereby a third party may be implicated)?

 

Your question, and the first question above, make me feel wary.  Are we at a point where, if we are simply having people over for a party and drinks, appetizers or dinner, we first ought to have them sign a release of liability?  I sure hope that is not going to become important or necessary.

 Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator.  It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional. 

 

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