Parental Liability for the Consequences of Underage Drinking
Ask the Experts by Ed Lazar
Q: Are parents responsible for the consequences of underage drinking in their home? If so, how serious are those consequences?
A: Kids love to celebrate. Whether at a family graduation party or a spontaneous late night get together, some kids celebrate with alcohol. What’s worse, 65% of kids under age 21 who say they drink admit they get alcohol from family and friends. That means they get it from their parents, their friends’ parents, or older siblings. Make no mistake about this: If you provide alcohol, directly or indirectly, to someone under the legal drinking age you can be held responsible for what happens after they have consumed it.
Even when kids are old enough to be held liable for their actions, their parents can still be held equally responsible and subject to severe and permanent consequences. Those consequences can be punitive, civil, or even criminal.
Here is a sad but common example. Please understand that there are many variables, but what I am about to share is a realistic situation and some plausible consequences.
Eddie’s parents were going to the cottage for the weekend. Eddie is 17 and is a really good kid. He gets good grades, listens to mom and dad most of the time, and gets along with everyone at school.
Just as his parents were leaving, Eddie asked if it he could have Glenn and Brandon over to play video games and spend the night. Since she knew both boys, mom said okay, but also said they could have no one else, and absolutely no drinking.
Eddie agreed and immediately sent a text to his buddies, “sall good cmon over”
Later Brandon got a text from another friend, Marky, “What r u doing 2 nt?”
Brandon responded, “at Eddie’s his folks r gone.”
At 10:00 pm Mom called Eddie, “How are you? Everything okay?”
“Yep, Glenn and Brandon are here, and we ate.”
“Okay, honey, not too late, and remember your promise. I love you, good night.”
At 11:00 pm Marky showed up with his girlfriend, Monica and her friend, Stacey. Eddie was surprised, but not really worried. He had hoped to meet Stacey sometime anyway. Within an hour there were 13 kids in the house and 10 others had already come and gone. Eddie noticed the empties starting to accumulate,
“Hey, who brought the beer?”
Marky piped up, “We all brought something!”
Eddie felt conflicted and out of control. He was too embarrassed to call his mom, didn’t know who else to call and tried to manage the situation on his own.
By 3:00 am Eddie, Glenn, and Brandon cleaned up after the party that “never happened”. Empty beer cans and liquor bottles were toted to the dumpster behind a fast food joint during a snack run.
At 11:00 am Eddie was awakened by a text from Jenny, Stacey’s friend, “U hear bout M M & S?” Eddies heart sank and his stomach tightened.
On his way to drop off the girls, Marky, who had been drinking, lost control of his dad’s car and hit a neighbor’s house. Police at the scene of the accident suspected that Marky had been drinking, and blood tests at the hospital confirmed it. They also questioned him about where he had been drinking and he told them.
Though the kids spent only 3 days in the hospital Stacey’s facial lacerations required many subsequent cosmetic surgeries to heal. Monica was shaken up, but deemed physically okay. She continued to have bad dreams about the accident. Marky suffered a broken leg and though therapy was successful he walked hindered by pain.
Not being a law enforcement officer, I can’t comment on any criminal charges that may have been filed, but it was entirely possible. I can say that insurance would not cover any part of a criminal defense but here are the likely lawsuits and insurance claims:
Monica and Stacey’s parents and the homeowner’s insurance company who paid for the damage to the house Marky crashed into all sued Marky’s dad since he owned the car and had given Marky permission to use it.
Marky’s dad’s auto insurance company settled out of court with the girls’ parents and repaid the homeowner’s insurance company for their repairs. However, the policy limits were not sufficient to cover all of Stacey’s permanent disfigurement. He was forced to liquidate his 401(k) and take a home equity loan to pay the balance. Marky’s father’s 94 Jeep was a total loss. They had cancelled the collision coverage earlier in the year because it was so old.
Marky received a DUI and lost his driver’s license. Had he kept his license and his father replaced the car, his insurance premium would have gone from $515 to over $6,000 on a newer, fully covered car for the next 5 years.
Monica, Stacey and Marky’s parents all sued Eddie’s parents since they owned the home where the alcohol was available. Eddie’s parents’ homeowner’s and liability umbrella insurer paid maximum limits of $1,500,000 in settling the case.
None of the financial consequences can account for what those families had to endure personally and emotionally. They had to deal with trauma, permanent disfigurement, permanent disability, and the sorrow that goes with each.
Fortunately, no one died. Can you imagine adding the death of a child to that list of devastating consequences?
It does not matter what you did when you were younger or what you think your personal privacy entitles you to do. Zero tolerance for providing alcohol to anyone under 21 at any time in any place is the only safe way to live under the laws of this country.
Don’t worry about being a buddy, be a parent. If you leave your children on their own, give them some back up with neighbors or close-by family or don’t leave them. It will be a hard and unpopular position, but not as hard as standing by a hospital bed or a gravesite.
Ed Lazar is a State Farm Insurance agent in Grosse Pointe Farms with 27 years experience in property and casualty insurance. He can be reached at 313-882-0600.