Social Host Liability Laws In Illinois: Parents, You May be Held Responsible

Underage drinking is not an uncommon occurrence in our society. High school and college students all too frequently have parties where excessive amounts of alcohol are being consumed by minors. This may not be terribly surprising, but it should be alarming.

Dangerous consequences can occur when minors drink alcohol or take drugs, including alcohol poisoning and other serious injuries that may result due to overconsumption. Additionally, drunk driving accidents and death may even be possible. Many adults may not realize that they can be held liable under Illinois's social host liability laws for these consequences.

Consequences can be Costly

If found responsible, damages to people injured by underage drinkers can cost parents dearly. In 2006, a Lake County teenager was paralyzed as the result of a one-car accident where both the driver and the passenger had been drinking at a party. The court awarded $33.2 million to the injured passenger. A $2.5 million settlement was also reached between the injured youth and the homeowner parent, who did not know the teens were drinking alcohol while in her home.

The Illinois Supreme Court just heard oral arguments in the ongoing case, Bell v. Hutsell, where two teens were killed in a car accident after drinking at a party at the defendant's home. The defendants are the parents of the teen hosting the party; they did not supply the minors with alcohol. In fact, the parents even told their son that they would not allow drinking at the party. The underage party goers brought their own alcohol and drank it while in the defendants home. Recently, the appellate court found that the defendants undertook a duty to prevent drinking in their home and were negligent in performing this duty. Therefore, the parents may be held liable for the results.

What is Illinois' Social Host Liability Law?

Illinois passed a social host liability law in 2004. This law targets adults who sell or otherwise provide alcohol to minors. In many cases, this means that responsibility can be placed on the parents of teenagers if someone is injured or killed because of their access to alcohol.

The Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act (740 ILCS 58/1), also known as the social host liability law, was passed in response to the Illinois Supreme Court's ruling in the Wakulich v. Mraz (203 Ill. 2d 223) case. Elizabeth Wakulich, 16, was pressured into drinking an entire bottle of liquor. Despite the fact that she was vomiting profusely and eventually passed out, no effort was made to provide Elizabeth with any medical attention. She died as a result of alcohol poisoning.

Due to laws at the time of the Wakulich case, the court held that the defendants, 16 and 18 year old brothers and their father who was home during the incident, could not be liable under social host liability. In response to the Wakulich ruling, the Illinois legislature specifically created a cause of action that would hold adults responsible if they provided minors access to alcohol, if the minors were subsequently injured or died, or if they injured or killed others as a result of their drinking.

Who is Affected by Social Host Liability?

The group most impacted by the social host liability laws in Illinois may be parents of teenagers. If parents allow a party to be held in their home and minors are also drinking alcohol while in their home, the parents may be held responsible for any resulting injuries or deaths that may result. Parents may also be held liable if the inebriated teenager gets behind the wheel and into an auto accident causing injuries or death to themselves or others.

It is important for parents to understand that they can be held liable under Illinois social host liability law even if they do not supply the minors with the alcohol. If the kids are drinking in the parent's home, even without the parents' permission, the parents may be held responsible for any injuries that result.

If a parent is found responsible under Illinois' social host liability law, the teenage victim, or his or her parents, may be entitled to compensation for the injuries suffered. Some compensatory damages may include:

  • Costs for medical treatment
  • Costs of future medical care
  • Disfigurement
  • Loss of quality of life
  • Loss of companionship
  • Pain and suffering
  • Attorney's fees
  • Punitive damages

The trend in Illinois seems clear, parents are being held responsible for the consequences of teens drinking in their homes. As illustrated in recent cases, damages can be costly to the parents found liable for the teen's injuries, but the costs to the injured teenager and other injured partygoers can be even greater. Underage drinking is dangerous and it is up to adults to keep minors safe. Part of this responsibility is not providing alcohol to minors illegally. This is not only a moral responsibility, but a legal one as well and parents need to be aware of the negative consequences of their actions.