Social host alcohol liability

by Walter Olson on November 1, 2007

A discussion by Judge Posner at the Becker-Posner blog (via Childs) provokes this on-point comment from reader “Phil”:

Perhaps one of the reasons social-host liability hasn’t caught on yet is that the “duty” one is expected to perform is onerous.

Should one of my guests insist on driving home drunk, I have two choices: either take his keys by force, or call the police and have him caught.

In the first case, I could get badly hurt — and, if my friend is only slightly over the legal limit, the combined physical harms to me and my friend are probably much higher than to the sum of the expected harms to all drivers on the road.

In the second case, my friend will lose his license, and perhaps his freedom. The penalty for getting caught driving drunk is much higher than the harms resulting from the individual infraction, as a deterrent, required because of the fact that so few drunk drivers are caught. So this is not something I would do to a friend. A stranger, perhaps, but not a friend.

The fact is that social hosts faced with an intoxicated friend who insists on driving have no reasonable recourse.

{ 13 comments }

1 jeffrey 11.01.07 at 11:22 am

Phil left out the most obvious option: simply don’t serve alcohol.

2 Bob Smith 11.01.07 at 3:29 pm


Phil left out the most obvious option: simply don’t serve alcohol.

That’s really the point, isn’t it? It’s no longer about drunk driving, it’s about stamping out alcohol altogether.

3 AMcAMcA 11.01.07 at 3:29 pm

Now, now. You getnly talk him out of it, and insist he sleep on the sofa. Get others to join for increased peer pressure. Invariably, at some point during the night, the poor fool will get up and show himself out anyway.

4 LisaMarie 11.01.07 at 5:00 pm

I’ve got an even better solution: if you demonstrate that you make poor decisions cannot control your alcohol consumption, and place the onus on someone else to do so, then you should have a surrogate decision maker appointed to you. From that point on, you will be reduced to the legal and moral status of a small child, with your choices made for you by someone capable of better judgment. If that’s the way people want things to be, by all means they should get it.

5 John Burgess 11.01.07 at 5:45 pm

The examples given are worst-case/best-case. Getting pounded by your ‘friend’ is the ultimate in bad new (well, I guess he could knife or shoot your). But getting home safely (or with only a ticket) is a best-case. It leaves out the very real and possible consequence of killing someone (else) through drunk driving.

Designated drivers–even among couples–can solve the problem. Avoiding alcohol if you are going to be driving solves the problem.

Calling a taxi could solve it at some expense in money and pride, but nobody’s driving drunk.

Self-control rather than nanny (or Big Brother) should be the solution of choice here.

Lack of self-control puts both the drinker/driver and the host in peril. That’s the way the law’s being interpreted, so you need to find a way to avoid the pitfalls, even if it means abstaining for an evening.

6 Deoxy 11.01.07 at 6:16 pm

The very simple truth is that the social host has no AUTHORITY to do anything about said event (byond calling the police, and that likely wouldn’t get a response in most districts, anyway), and therefore, shouldn’t (and morally isn’t) responsible.

Short of pouring the alcohol down the other person’s throat forcibly, of course… and then, we’re already talking about using force (and criminally so) anyway.

7 Gunner 11.02.07 at 8:55 am

My mom was the typical stereotype church lady, and my dad was a biker(1%). Odd combo, but when we had a party at my house she seized the keys from hairy hulking bikers at the start, and no one dared to try to get them from her at the end if she saw you drink. I awoke many morning as a kid with piles of sleeping bikers scattered around the house.

If you want to keep them from driving it can be done.

8 Deoxy 11.02.07 at 9:21 am

Gunner,

Ever heard of having a spare set of keys? I have friends who carry two sets with them ALL the time, just in case… So, that only helps, it doesn’t really stop them.

9 Jim Collins 11.02.07 at 9:31 am

I’d be kind of careful about the “designated driver” as well. Last Saturday I was returning from a dart tournament with three of my friends. We usually take turns with whose vehicle we use with that person being the designated driver for the evening. This time it was Bob’s turn to drive, but his car was in the shop having some work done, so I said that we could use mine as long as he took his turn as driver. We ended up leaving to return home late because a couple of us finished in the finals, and sure enough we run into a check point. When asked Bob produced his license and I handed him the registration and insurance paperwork. The officer then asked where the owner of the vehicle was? I said that I was the owner and gave him my license when he requested it. We were both given breathalyzer tests. Bob’s was 0.0, but mine was .11. I was then informed that I was “lucky” that I wasn’t being arrested. When I asked why was I lucky, I was informed that since I had been drinking and was intoxicated I couldn’t give Bob permission to drive my vehicle. They were going to be nice and let me slide this time, but don’t let it happen again and we were free to go.

10 Bob L 11.02.07 at 5:37 pm

“The fact is that social hosts faced with an intoxicated friend who insists on driving have no reasonable recourse.”

WRONG! The host ALWAYS has the option of calling a cab for an enebriated guest, who will appreciate it later. Also, in many communities, (and more every day) there are agencies that will provide a free ride home for intoxicated party-goers (these programs are not always limited to holidays anymore). Think, people! One drunk on the road is one too many.

11 Bill Poser 11.03.07 at 1:41 am

Jim Collins,

The police claim sounds like nonsense to me. What state was that? And do you know what law they had in mind?

12 Jim Collins 11.05.07 at 7:35 am

Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. I don’t know what that law is either, but I do know that it wasn’t the time or the place to argue it. Especially since I had been drinking. Our State Legislature has a nasty habit of voting on laws at 3:00 AM when no one is watching.

13 Deoxy 11.05.07 at 12:28 pm

Bob L,

Of course, the host can call a cab, etc… but the guest can simply LEAVE IN THEIR OWN CAR ANYWAY, and there’s nothing the host can legally do about it.

The host CANNOT (legally) prevent people from driving themselves home.

End of story.

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