Social Host Liability Decision in Underage Drinking Case Overturned By Illinois Supreme Court – Bell v. Hutsell

The Illinois Supreme Court overturned an Appellate Court ruling regarding parents’ liability for underage drinking on their premises in Bell v. Hutsell, No. 110724 (May 19, 2011). The Appellate Court had found that the underage hosts’ parents were responsible for the death of one of the underage partygoers who drove into a tree after leaving the party intoxicated. However, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the case facts supported a case of true nonfeasance on the part of the parents and as such failed to establish a duty to protect the third party decedent. As a result of the Illinois Supreme Court decision, Bell was dismissed with prejudice.

The original wrongful death complaint alleged that the defendants’ son, Jonathan Hutsell, had hosted a party at their home. The 18 year-old decedent, Daniel Bell, attended this party where underage drinking took place; Bell died after he left the Hutsells’s party intoxicated and drove into a tree. The Illinois complaint contended that the Hutsells had voluntarily assumed a duty to protect the partygoers, including the decedent; the complaint alleged that this duty was established by the Hutsells’ instructions to their son that underage drinking would not be tolerated at the party and that they would be personally monitoring the party to ensure no minors consumed alcohol in their home. The plaintiff’s contention regarding this “assumed duty” on the part of the Hutsells that is at issue in this wrongful death case.

However, the complaint further suggested that not only did the Hutsells fail to adequately perform their duty to the decedent, but were also aware that minors were consuming alcohol in their home. Therefore, the plaintiffs contended that the Hutsells had negligently performed their self-imposed duty to prevent underage consumption of alcohol at their son’s party. While the defense argued that the plaintiffs had failed to provide adequate proof that the Hutsells had voluntarily undertaken a duty towards the decedent, the Appellate Court decision found that the defense had not provided enough evidence to support this claim and remanded the wrongful death lawsuit to the trial court.

In its review of Bell, the Illinois Supreme Court examined whether the plaintiffs had established the defendants duty to the decedent. Citing Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority, 238 Ill. 2d 215, 225 (2010), the court pointed out that

in order to prevail in an action for negligence, the plaintiff must
prove that the defendant owed a duty, that the defendant breached that duty, and that defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of injury to the plaintiff.

Therefore, if the plaintiffs failed to prove the Hutsells’s duty towards Bell, then there was no basis for their wrongful death complaint.

The wrongful death complaint set out several ways in which the Hutsells were negligent in their supposed duty towards Bell, including a failure “to comply with their own verbal directions to the party guests to ensure that underage drinking and driving thereafter from their home not occur.” The plaintiffs contend that this undertaking not only applied to the Hutsells’s son, but also to the rest of the partygoers, including the decedent.

However, the Illinois Supreme Court pointed out that the Hutsells had only told their son, Jonathan, about their intention to monitor the alcohol intake at the party. While Mr. Hutsells had asked several partygoers to not drive if they had been drinking at the party, the court classified this more as a “request” rather than “verbal directions” that would be made to ensure compliance. In addition, the court pointed out that the defendants had not taken specifically prohibited or actively prevented the underage guests from drinking alcohol.

The court cites Wakulich v. Mraz, 203 Ill. 2d 223 (2003), which held that by “merely permit[ting} an intoxicated guest to ‘sleep it off’ on the host’s floor, the host does not thereby assume an open-ended duty to care for the guest and assess the guest’s medical condition.” In order to assume a duty for the guest, the host must go above and beyond this simple act. And while §323 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts does not specifically address situations where a host has made a promise to a party, but then failed to perform the promise, it does make a distinction between misfeasance and nonfeasance.

Misfeasance occurs when a party negligently performs a duty that it voluntarily undertook, whereas nonfeasance refers to an omission to perform a voluntary undertaking. The case facts suggest that the Hutsells did not perform their duties negligently, but rather that they did not actually perform their duty at all. Therefore, the Hutsells’s actions are a perfect example of nonfeasance.

In addition, the court points out that just because a party promises to perform a duty does not mean he cannot also terminate those services that he voluntarily undertook. Section 323 of Restatement (Second) of Torts §323, at 137 (1965), specifically states:

The fact that the actor gratuitously starts in to aid another does not necessarily require him to continue his services. He is not required to continue them indefinitely, or even until he has done everything in his power to aid and protect the other. The actor may normally abandon his efforts at any time unless, by giving the aid, he has put the other in a worse position than he was in before the actor attempted to aid him.

Therefore, even though the defendants had told their son that no alcohol was allowed at the party and that they would be monitoring the party to ensure there was no alcohol, by not doing anything the Hutsells had essentially abandoned their promise to monitor the party.

In addition, the court held that “monitoring alone obviously did nothing to ensure “the protection of the other’s person,” or “the protection of a third person,” pursuant to the requisites of sections 323 and 324A of the Restatement.” In order for the defendants to have voluntarily undertaken a duty to the partygoers, the defendants needed to take some sort of action in order to prevent the minors from drinking alcohol. Yet the court notes that the “defendants did not attempt to confiscate alcoholic beverages in the possession of underage partygoers; they did not ask offenders to leave; they did not call a halt to the party—they did nothing.”
The court held that the case facts do not support plaintiff’s claims that the defendants voluntarily assumed a duty towards the decedent, or that the defendants’ inaction increased the risk of harm to any of the underage partygoers. Furthermore, it held that to hold the defendants liable in this case would be an illogical and unsound policy:

illogical, because defendants’ failure to act on their stated intention did not in any way affect the events as they would have unfolded had the intent to act not been verbalized; unsound policy, because the imposition of a duty and liability in this situation would only serve as a deterrent to those who would consider volunteering assistance to others, in effect punishing people for thinking out loud.

So while defendants that can be shown to have been malfeasant in regards to their duty can be held liable for any harm that results from their negligence, nonfeasance alone does not result in a duty in an assumed undertaking.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois wrongful death lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago and surrounding areas, including Lake Zurich, Chicago Heights, Berwyn, Skokie, and Bartlett.

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