Underage Alcohol Consumption and Private Property Accidents
With its arrival, each summer brings with it an increase in the number of drowning deaths involving teens and young adults were are celebrating their graduation from high school or college. In a significant number of these deaths, alcohol will be noted as a contributing factor.
In today’s post, the drowning accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will review a recent drowning death in Nashville, Tennessee to illustrate two important legal issues that can arise in drowning accidents that occur at private social events. He will then discuss how these issues can influence wrongful death lawsuits filed by the victim’s survivors.
The following summary is paraphrased from news coverage of the accident by WTVF-TV, WKRN-TV, and the Nashville Tennessean.
On the evening of Thursday, August 1st, 19-year-old male was a guest at a party hosted at private residence honoring recent graduates of two exclusive single-sex Nashville, TN private schools for boys and girls. According to investigators, the accident victim was last seen by another party guest at around 11:30 p.m.
At around 10:30 the following morning, one of the residence owner’s employees found the victim floating in a pond behind the residence where the party had been held the previous evening. In accordance with Tennessee law an autopsy was performed, but the medical examiner’s final report is not expected to be available for several weeks pending the results of toxicology (drug and alcohol) tests.
The local authorities have refused to comment on the status of their investigation into Caver’s death except to confirm that an investigation is being conducted. However, WTVF-TV has quoted District Attorney Ray Crouch as stating he expects that charges will eventually be filed.
When a drowning death occurs in a social environment, four issues must be addressed:
- Did the host violate any criminal laws regarding the conduct of the party?
- Were underage party guests consuming alcoholic beverages?
- If alcohol was available to the guests, who provided it?
- Can the host be held personally liable for a death or injury, even if no criminal violation occurred?
1. Did the host violate any criminal laws regarding the conduct of the party?
Although there has been no confirmation that investigators are looking into the possibility that alcohol may have been involved, the wording of media reports suggests that those present at the party, both adult “chaperones” and underage party guests, are being questioned regarding 1) were underage party guests consuming alcoholic beverages and 2) if alcohol was available to the guests, who provided it?
2. Were underage party guests consuming alcoholic beverages?
Based on the previously mentioned media reports, this appears to have indeed been the case.
3. If alcohol was available to the guests, who provided it?
Although each state has its own alcoholic beverage laws, all states prohibit those under 21 from purchasing alcohol and most states prohibit an adult from providing alcohol to an underage guest in a social setting. As an example of such laws, in Tennessee it is a Class A misdemeanor for an adult to 1) furnish alcohol to a minor or 2) knowingly allow a minor to consume alcohol while on the adult’s property. In our example case, even if an underage party guest obtained alcohol from a source other than the host, the host is still “on the hook” if the host knew that underage drinking was occurring but did nothing to intervene.
4. Can the host be held personally liable for a death or injury, even if no criminal violation occurred?
The answer to this question is based on each state’s criminal and civil codes but, in general, a host can be held responsible for alcohol-related accidents that occur on the host’s property.
Under Tennessee’s “Social Host” law, a host can be criminally charged if an underage guest is served alcohol at a social event that is held at the host’s residence or at a rented or leased a location. This same law states that if an adult guest were to cause an accident that injures another, the host cannot be held liable that injury. In cases where an underage guest is the victim of an alcohol-related accident, the law is less clear.
The courts have generally held that any civil protection under a social host law is voided if the criminal act of providing alcohol to an underage guest occurs and, further, the host need not be charged or convicted of an offense before losing protection under a state’s civil code. In other words, as soon as an underage accident victim consumes alcohol the host becomes liable for the victim’s injuries.
There are, of course, other issues that could come into play in accidents such as the case mentioned here. At The Doan Law Firm, we will be following news reports related to this tragedy and will post future developments as they become available.