May server of alcohol at a fee-generating event be liable for the vehicular tort committed by an obviously intoxicated paying minor?

Posted in: Tort Liability by Steven Vartabedian on

Social hosts furnishing alcohol generally enjoy immunity from liability as not being the proximate cause for injuries caused by an intoxicated guest. (Civil Code section 1714 (b).) However, this immunity is not available for a server falling within Business and Professions Code section 25601.2, which provides that a person not required to have a liquor license may be held liable if a sale of alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor occurs.

The critical question for the California Supreme Court in Ennabe v. Manosa (filed 2/24/14) S189577 was whether the circumstances there constituted a sale within the meaning of section 25601.2. Manosa hosted a party at her parent’s vacant rental residence, paying for a disc jockey to play music, and providing $60 worth of alcoholic beverages, as well as cups and cranberry juice. Two of Manosa’s friends paid for a portion of the initial purchase of alcohol. A number of guests were invited to the party free of charge. She asked a friend to act as a “bouncer” at the side gate entry to the party, instructing him to charge uninvited guests $3 to $5. Thomas Garcia was among those who paid an entrance fee. Once $50 to $60 had been collected, those funds were use to purchase additional alcohol. Garcia, a minor, as were most of the people at the party, had 4 shots of whiskey before arriving at the party and continued to consume the provided alcohol once there. Ennabe, a late-arriving invited guest, escorted the unruly Garcia to Garcia’s car. The intoxicated Garcia ran over Ennabe, killing him.

In the wrongful death action brought by Ennabe’s heirs, Manosa was granted summary judgment in the trial court on the defense of civil immunity; the Court of Appeal affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed based on the liability provision of section 25601.2.

As an initial matter, the Supreme Court discussed a preliminary issue not addressed by the parties: Does section 25602.1 apply to a private party not in the business of selling alcohol? The section has several categories including those licensed by the state, those in commercial sales who have failed to get licenses and those authorized by the federal government to sell alcohol. These categories can be liable, even if the alcohol is given away without charge. A fourth catch-all category refers to “any other person,” and was determined by the court to include private persons and ostensible social hosts like Manosa, who receive consideration from their “guests.”

The remaining analysis is whether Manosa’s sold alcohol to Garcia. The statutory definition of a sale found in Business and Professions Code (B &P) section 23025 is “any transaction whereby, for any consideration” that transfers the beverage from one person to another. This in the high court’s view suggests a broad construction of what constitutes a sale. Here, the Court of Appeal found there was no transfer of the beverage because the entrance fee was paid before any alcohol was served to the payer. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that what is essentially a “cover charge” constitutes a sale even though the beverage is not necessarily served, or transferred, at the time of payment. B & P section 25604 states that consideration includes cover charges. And the drink itself can be “complimentary,” if the recipient of the alcohol is paying a fee for items such as food, entertainment or limousine services, and the drink is attendant to that item. The beverage in reality is not free, even if there is no price attached to the drinks and seller is not profiting on the drinks themselves.

The court ultimately held the charging of an entrance fee to a party which enables party guests to drink the alcoholic beverage served by the host qualifies as a sale of alcoholic beverages. Accordingly, where a minor guest under these circumstances receives alcohol in an obviously intoxicated state, the host may be held legally liable for injuries to that person or others resulting from the alcohol consumption.

This opinion reminds all of us that the concept of proximate causation is a flexible policy-driven concept. Even though the legislature has declared that consumption of alcohol rather provision of alcohol is normally the sole proximate cause of a drunk-driving-caused accident, the policy of protecting injured parties from the conduct of intoxicated minors mandates deviation from the general rule. And the party to be held accountable need not be an adult herself.

Where the costs of gatherings are shared among participants, one might envision the potential of liability even in the “potluck” get-together where minors are present and alcohol is served. The Supreme Court acknowledged that not all potlucks would present potential liability to the host. But this statement leaves it open that some potluck-type events may be considered “sales” of alcohol served at those events. So a strong message to social hosts might be: Avoid serving any alcohol and receiving any guest contributions at events that may be attended by minors.

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