Tim Maloney Wins Landmark Maryland Court of Appeals Ruling: Social Hosts Can Be Liable for Guests’ Drunken Driving

by Timothy F. Maloney
July 12th, 2016

On July 5, 2016, partner Timothy F. Maloney won a major victory in the Maryland Court of Appeals, when the state’s highest court ruled unanimously that adults who serve alcohol to minors in Maryland can be held civilly liable for deaths or injuries that result from the minors’ driving in a drunken or impaired condition.

This was the first time that the court had held adults responsible to third parties who were killed or injured as a result of the actions of impaired underage drivers.

“Underage persons are not solely responsible for drinking alcohol on an adult’s property because they are not competent to handle the effects of this potentially dangerous substance,” the court wrote.

The court based its analysis on a 1996 Maryland statute that makes it unlawful for adults to “knowingly and willfully” allow a person under 21 to drink inside a home. One question before the court was whether the existence of that law implied that a violation of it by an adult who allows drinking will result in liability in a civil lawsuit, a doctrine called “social host liability.”

The court, in an opinion written by Judge Sally D. Adkins, held that “there exists a limited form of social host liability sounding in negligence—based on the strong public policy reflected in [the statute] but that it only exists when the adults in question act knowingly and willfully, as required by the statute.”

The decision came in two separate cases that both posed the issue of liability. In one case, Linda Stapf permitted 17-year-old Steven Dankos to drink with friends at a party in her garage in 2009. Another young man, who was drunk, left the house in his pickup truck and crashed it, killing Steven. Steven’s mother sued Stapf, saying that Stapf, as the adult who was aware of the alcohol consumption, was legally responsible for Steven’s death.

In the other case, Manal Kiriakos was walking her dog in 2011 when an SUV driven by 18-year-old Shetmiyah Robinson struck her. Kiriakos was severely injured and sued Brandon Phillips, an adult at whose home Robinson had been drinking.

Maryland now joins 31 other states that impose civil liability against people who knowingly permit minors to drink alcohol.

Under Maryland law, people and establishments that serve alcohol to adults are generally not legally responsible for deaths and injuries that result from drunken driving. But the court found that because of the 1996 statute and because people under 21 lack full adult capacity to make decisions about drinking and driving, people who serve alcohol to minors should be civilly liable.

Tim Maloney said regarding the case, “This is a wake-up call to the so-called cool parents who on Friday nights have their kids’ friends over and allow them to drink in their basements. This has been an epidemic in some communities when these kids go out and get behind the wheel and someone pays the price.”

Timothy Maloney is a preeminent trial lawyer who has obtained millions of dollars in recoveries for his clients in a wide variety of complex matters, including civil rights, employment discrimination, whistleblower actions, and high-stakes business litigation.

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