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LEGAL MATTERS: Parents Who Ignore Underage Drinking Are Liable

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


It's been a year since Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman got into hot water over the underage drinking at his daughter's grad party. Don't let the same thing happen to you.

It’s that time of year again. Thousands of Rhode Island teenagers will mark their graduation from high school with backyard barbecues, pool parties and picnics. But whether the party is an elaborate blowout or a small and intimate family get together, parents need to think twice about alcohol and the civil and criminal liability they may be exposed to if underage graduates imbibe.

Criminal Liability

In the wake of several horrific events involving underage drinkers, the General Assembly passed legislation aimed at increasing the penalties for adults who provide minors with alcohol. Under the law, any person 21 or older who buys or provides alcohol to anyone under 21 or who allows underage guests to consume alcohol on his or her property can be subject to criminal penalties.

A conviction can result in not only a fine but imprisonment. The penalties become quite severe for repeat offenders.

Civil Liability

Although some states recognize that homeowners can be held responsible for serving alcohol to guests who later injure someone as a result of their intoxication (commonly referred to as social host responsibility), Rhode Island – as a general rule -- does not. There is one exception – when underage drinkers are involved and the parent allowed the drinking to go on.

In 2000 a Warwick graduation party where the mother provided kegs of beer for the guests left one graduate severely injured after he was attacked by an uninvited guest wielding a baseball bat. The injured student sued the homeowner and the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the mother had  a special duty to the children at the party because she created a special relationship to them when she served alcohol – just as if she were a bar owner. 

“There is no valid justification for absolving an adult parent of this higher standard of care when she knowingly provides alcohol, or is aware that it is available, to underage individuals, for consumption on her property,” the Court said.

The court noted the mother’s argument that she could not have known someone would attack the victim was not reasonable. “Based on defendant's decision to rent a tent and a port-a-john, it seems she anticipated a large gathering, which is exactly what she got. Seventy underaged people arrived at the party through word-of-mouth and proceeded to drink alcoholic beverages, violating the law,” the Court said.

Rhode Island has joined the ranks of many other states in recognizing that providing alcohol to underage drinkers is not innocent conduct. Doing so is dangerous and will expose hosts to criminal and civil liability.

Susan G. Pegden is a litigation associate with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins in Providence.  She is admitted to practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Rhode Island Association of Justice (RIAJ).

Sean P. Feeney is a partner with the Law Firm of Hamel, Waxler, Allen & Collins. He is admitted to practice in Rhode Island, Illinois and Wisconsin. Mr. Feeney is a former special counsel to the City of Providence, military prosecutor with the United States Marine Corps and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Central District of California.


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