SAN FRANCISCO - In a decision expected to affect college and high-school parties, the California Supreme Court ruled today that an underage host who charges admission to an alcohol-fueled party can be held liable if an intoxicated under-21 guest kills or injures another person.
A 1978 state law generally provides social hosts and bars with legal immunity from being sued for civil damages for having provided alcohol to a person who harms others as a result of being drunk.
But the law contains a few exceptions, including one that allows civil lawsuits against people who sell alcohol to obviously intoxicated minors.
In decision issued at its headquarters in San Francisco today, the court unanimously ruled that a host's collection of a cover charge at a party where liquor is served qualified as a sale of alcoholic beverages.
The admission fee makes the host "potentially liable under the terms of that statute as a person who sold alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote.
The panel reinstated a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court against a 20-year-old party host by the parents of a college student who was killed by a 20-year-old drunken driver who had been a paying guest.
The host, Jessica Manosa, gave the party in a vacant rental house owned by her parents in Diamond Bar on April 27, 2007. Her parents did not know about it. After word of the event spread by telephone and text messages, between 40 and 60 young people showed up, some of whom had not been invited.
Manosa, who provided rum, tequila and beer and asked friends to buy more alcohol, asked a friend to stand by a gate outside the house and collect admission fees of $3 to $5 from the uninvited guests.
One of the uninvited participants, Thomas Garcia, 20, allegedly arrived intoxicated, paid a cover charge, and drank more alcohol at the party, according to the wrongful death lawsuit by the parents of 19-year-old Andrew Ennabe, a California State University, Fullerton, student who had been an invited guest.
After Garcia became rowdy, he was escorted out of the party by Ennabe and a group of friends. As Garcia drove away, he ran over Ennabe, who died of his injuries six days later.
In a separate criminal case, Garcia pleaded guilty to voluntary vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Ennabe's parents, Faiez and Christina Ennabe, appealed to the state high court after a trial judge and an appeals court dismissed their civil lawsuit against Manosa on the ground that the cover charge did not amount to a sale of alcohol and that Manosa was therefore protected by the 1978 law.
Werdegar wrote in the ruling that Manosa allegedly "operated what was in essence a pop-up nightclub that required a cover charge for entry" and that the action "falls with (the law's) definition of a sale of alcohol."
The parents' lawsuit now goes back to Superior Court for a trial to determine whether the alleged sale to an obviously intoxicated minor occurred and whether that caused Ennabe's death.
In the meantime, the ruling sets a precedent for other cases in which young people are charged a cover fee for a party, according to Sharon Arkin, a lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Consumer Attorneys of California.
"I've been told that a lot of college dorm parties and high school parties charge entry fees," she said.
"Under this decision, if hosts charge a fee and serve the alcohol (to a minor) and someone gets hurt, they're responsible," Arkin said.
"The decision supports the public policy purpose of liability to hold people responsible for the choices they make. Once you make that choice and start serving alcohol, you are going to have legal liability and be responsible for that choice," she said.
In enacting the 1978 law granting civil immunity to social hosts and bars in most circumstances, the Legislature said its purpose was to reflect the concept that the consumption, and not the serving, of alcohol was the cause of any resulting injury.
The exception that provides civil liability for people who sell alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor originally applied only to licensed liquor sellers, such as bars. In 1986, the Legislature expanded the exception to apply to anyone who sells alcohol.
In yet another exception added in 2010, the Legislature established civil liability for "a parent, guardian or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age," when injury or death results, regardless of whether the young person was visibly drunk when given alcohol.
Today's decision has the effect of expanding that liability in two directions -- to underage hosts who charge admission fees and serve intoxicated minors at their residences, and to both adult and under-21 social hosts who collect fees and serve intoxicated young people at parties at facilities outside their homes.
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