Holiday celebrations are in the air and New Year’s Eve is around the corner. While it’s wonderful to celebrate there are risks people should be aware of.
This year over 10,000 people will die in drunk-driving crashes and almost half of these involve drivers under 21, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite required health classes, stories of fatal accidents in the news, and constant reminders from parents & teachers, minors still decide to consume alcohol. Nearly three quarters of students have consumed alcohol by the end of high school, and a third of them have done so by eighth grade. Teenagers experiment with alcohol, become intoxicated, and then get behind the wheel of a car. This careless decision will almost always result in an accident. In 2009, 28% of drivers involved in fatal accidents had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit and almost a quarter of these drivers were under the age of 21.
New laws have emerged to make homeowners legally responsible for underage drinking taking place in their homes. In 2007, Suffolk County and Nassau County enacted laws making it illegal for anyone over 18 to allow minors to drink alcohol in their homes. This liability could extend to the owner of a home, an older child, a relative or even a babysitter. Violation of such laws are usually considered misdemeanor crimes and the penalties run from fines to one year imprisonment.
Social Host laws don’t require any harm to a third party-the mere serving of alcohol is a violation, regardless if the minor intoxicated or not. Due to these new laws and an increasing awareness of the dangers of alcohol, the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the United States has decreased by 10% since 2007.
However, accidents still occur. In September 2011 a couple was arrested for violating Suffolk County’s Social Host law for allowing a party where underage drinking took place; a 16-year-old girl from the party wandered way from the house and was struck by a car on a nearby highway; the supplier of the liquor is also under investigation.
While many people believe that such laws are unenforceable and unwieldy, passage of these laws represents a focus on people that "enable" underage drinking in their homes or on their property. The stated purpose of Nassau County's Social Host law is, "......to deter the consumption of alcoholic beverages by minors by holding those over the age of eighteen responsible when they permit the consumption of alcoholic beverages by minors at their residences." (Many such laws also have exceptions, including Nassau County's law, for underage drinking specifically allowed by a parent for for religious purposes.)
What action can you take to prevent underage drinking in your home during the holidays? Education is key; reinforcement of the lessons taught in school are critical. Informing teens of the consequences of their actions is important-arrest, serious injury, loss of jobs & loss of educational opportunities. Parents who are responsible and careful when they drink will be good role models for their children.
Being present during a party is key and exercising actual supervision is critical. Limiting access to liquor and preventing liquor from entering your home is important. If underage drinking is discovered, immediate steps to end the drinking/party is usually mandated by the Social Host laws.
What happens if you've been injured as a result of an underage drinker? Various legal remedies exist: Actions against the underage drinker for negligence; potential Dram Shop liability against the server of liquor (Dram Shop laws impose liability for injuries on those persons who violate laws pertaining to the service of liquor--underage age drinkers; intoxicated drinkers, etc...). Social Host laws may expand such liability to persons who enable underage drinking, providing additional remedies to injured victims.