Liability for Service of Alcoholic Beverages

The law of Florida is that a social host is ordinarily not liable for the service of alcoholic beverages to a guest who then causes an accident even when the guest is a known alcoholic. Dowell v Gracewood Fruit Co., 559 So.2d 217 (Fla. 1990). A social host is also not liable for serving alcoholic beverages to a minor who later causes injuries when those beverages are served at a private function. Bankston v Brennan, 507 So.2d 1385 (Fla. 1987), Kirkland v Johnson, 499 So.2d 899 (Fla. 1st DCA 1987). However, an adult who allows an open house party to take place at a residence and fails to take reasonable steps to prevent the consumption of alcoholic beverages by a minor is liable both civilly and criminally. Fla. Stat. 856.015, Newsome v Haffner, 710 So.2d 184 (Fla. 1st DCA 1998), Trainor v Estate of Hansen, 740 So.2d 1201 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1999).

The question of whether or not a private social club is responsible for selling alcoholic beverages to someone who it knew was habitually addicted to alcohol came up in Fritsch v Rocky Bayou Country Club, Inc., 26 F.L.W. D2736 (Fla. 1st DCA, Nov. 16, 2001). That case was a wrongful death suit against a private country club by the family of a club member who volunteered to drive a fellow club member who was too inebriated to drive home from a party. Enroute, the decedent was killed by a gunshot fired by the drunken passenger. The trial court granted a summary judgment, applying the social host rules in light of the not-for-profit status of the private club, and ruled, as a matter of law, that the shooting was not foreseeable. The appellate court reversed.

Fla. Stat. §768.125 provides the following:

768.125 Liability for injury or damage resulting
from intoxication. A person who sells or
furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person of
lawful drinking age shall not thereby become
liable for injury or damage caused by or
resulting from the intoxication of such person,
except that a person who willfully and
unlawfully sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages
to a person who is not of lawful drinking age
or who knowingly serves a person habitually
addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic
beverages may become liable for injury or
damage caused by or resulting from the
intoxication of such minor or person.

The appellate court found that since the country club held a license to sell liquor and charged for that service, it was not in the same position as a social host. In addition, a “golf mixer” at which the club sold alcohol was found not to be a private social function such as that anticipated by the above-cited “social host” cases. In light of the fact that there was evidence to indicate that the perpetrator was, indeed, habitually addicted to the use of alcoholic beverages and that the club had information to indicate that was the case, the appellate court found that the granting of the summary judgment was error.

On the issue of foreseeability the Court stated the following:
Finally, contrary to the trial court’s determination
that even if a legal duty exists, Wright’s action
was not foreseeable, Appellant presented evidence
from which a jury could find that, by knowingly
serving Wright too much alcohol, Appellee
created a ‘zone of danger’ that some injury could
be anticipated. A plaintiff is not required to
prove the exact manner of the injury to support
a claim under section 768.125. See McCain v
Florida Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500 (Fla. 1992);
Kirkman Road Sports Pub & Restaurant, Inc. v
Dempsey, 723 So.2d 384 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998);
Coker v Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 642 So.2d at 774
(Fla. 1st DCA 1994).

This decision clarifies that a not for profit corporation is entitled to no
immunity because of its status. Indeed the opinion states “Nowhere in Chapter 617, Florida Statutes, which addresses not-for-profit corporations, is there even a hint that the legislature intended by statute to exempt such corporations from liability.” Thus where a bar, whether as part of a profit or nonprofit corporation, sells alcohol to a person known to be habitually addicted to alcohol, it does so at the risk of being held liable for damages caused by that person’s state of intoxication.

Originally published in April 2002