Minors Drinking Alcohol Decision: Social Host Liability Against Parents Reviewed By Illinois Appellate Court

The Illinois Appellate Court has affirmed in part and reversed in part a ruling by a Lake County, Illinois circuit court judge regarding parents’ liability when minors consume alcohol at their home. The decision in Bell v. Hutsell, No. 2-09-0577, involves a case where two 18 year-old males who had been drinking at the defendants’ home were killed after their car crashed into a tree.

The Illinois wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the mother of the driver of the vehicle and alleged that the defendants were negligent when they failed to prevent their underage guests from consuming alcohol on their property and that the defendants were in violation of the Illinois Liquor Control Act because they failed to control access to alcohol on their premises. Both decedents had attended a party at the defendants’ residence hosted by their son where alcohol was being consumed.

According to the case facts, the defendants had informed their son that they would not allow any alcoholic beverages at his party and that they would be home and checking up on the teenagers to ensure there was no drinking. The defendants removed all the alcohol from the basement where the party was held and instead stocked it with soda. However, the facts further show that the defendant parents were in fact at the party when people were drinking. Witnesses further confirmed that the decedent driver was drinking at the party and was impaired when he left it.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s case on both counts because it felt that the complaint did not represent a cause of action. Both the civil negligence count and the count alleging violation of the Liquor Contol Act were reviewed by the Illinois Appellate Court. While the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal based on the Liquor Control Act counts, it found that the trial court erred in dismissing the civil negligence counts.

The civil negligence counts alleged that when the defendant parents told their son that they would monitor the party guests who were under 21 years-old they voluntarily undertook a duty to their guests. Their negligence results from their breach of this duty to limit underage people from drinking on their property. In Illinois the legislature and the courts have consciously not imposed any social host liability. Under this theory of liability, the host, in this case the defendant parents, is liable for any injury sustained by a minor who has been drinking at their premises. However, since Illinois does not enforce any social host liability laws, this theory of liability and negligence could not be applied in Bell.

However, in Bell, the defendant parents did not supply the alcohol to the minors and therefore do not meet the legal definition of ‘social hosts’, which is anyone who hosts a social gathering. The alcohol was brought to the party by other minors and did not come from the defendants’ residence. So ironically the lawsuit would have been dismissed if the parents did furnish alcohol to the decedents, but is allowed because the defendants did not provide alcohol and therefore do not qualify as ‘social hosts’. The fact that the defendants may have negligently failed to prevent the drinking of alcohol at their home doesn’t convert them into social-hosts.

Furthermore, the plaintiff’s complaint alleged that the defendants had undertaken a duty to prevent alcohol consumption at their residence and had negligently performed that self-imposed duty. The Appellate Court held that the defendants had not shown that these counts of the plaintiff’s complaint did not adequately plead all the elements of a voluntary undertaking.

In regards to the Liquor Control Act liability count, the Appellate Court found that these counts were barred because they involved issues of social host liability. These allegations were reliant on social host liability in order to plead the cause of action, which was based upon the defendants knowingly furnishing alcohol to minors. Because the court had already found that the defendants were not social hosts, these counts would not stand even if Illinois allowed social host liability cases.

Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision regarding the allegations of civil negligence regarding the defendants’ alleged breach of duty, but affirmed the trial courts dismissal of the Liquor Control Act counts. Bell was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings as to whether the plaintiff had adequately pleaded all of the elements of the voluntary undertaking in its complaint.

Addendum: The Supreme Court went on to overturn the Appellate Court’s ruling in Bell, the details of which can be found at Social Host Liability Decision in Underage Drinking Case Overturned By Illinois Supreme Court – Bell v. Hutsell.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Park Ridge, Oak Lawn, Burr Ridge, and Elmhurst.

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