The Twelve Days of Tort Law: Civil Liability for Underage Drinking

On the second day of Christmas, a marshal served on me! A complaint alleging that I acted recklessly!

Welcome to the second installment of The Law Office of Christopher J. Mutchler’s festive twelve part pseudo-satirical series on Connecticut personal injury law: civil liability for underage drinking. The law on this is pretty complicated, so before I get into whether you’re on the hook for medical bills if Uncle Bob’s college aged son falls flat on his face after his sixth glass of eggnog that he swears he didn’t know had alcohol in it, I want to talk about an important distinction: the difference between civil and criminal liability.

Very broadly and perhaps over-simplistically, there are two types of things for which a wrongdoer may be held liable: criminal offenses and civil offenses. Very generally, and again perhaps over-simplistically, criminal offenses are things that could put you in jail, and civil offenses are things that you just have to pay money for. As almost everyone is familiar with O.J. Simpson’s famous double homicide case, I will use that as a clarifying example. O.J. was found not guilty of the criminal charges that were filed against him, but was found liable for the civil charges filed by the victims’ families. This is why O.J. did not serve any time in prison, but was required to pay out a huge sum of money.

Got it? Good. Now that you know that the difference between the civil and criminal consequences of an action, you will appreciate the importance of my telling you that everything that follows is with regard ONLYto the civil consequence of the actions described. There are plenty of things that may not result in civil liability but will very probably carry a criminal penalty. Of course, even with respect to the specific civil actions that follow, this article is no replacement for the advice of competent legal counsel, and should not be relied upon for any determination of potential liability. Nothing contained herein should be interpreted as legal advice with regard to any specific situation, for which you should always retain competent legal counsel.

Okay, now on to the good stuff. Here’s a hypothetical that many may identify with. It’s Christmas day, and you’re hosting. Friends and family from all over the country have gathered joyously at your home, laughing cheerfully while recounting all that’s gone on in their lives since this time last year. There is a flurry of snow, but no more than a dusting is expected to stick until late tonight. Perfect. A chorus of toddlers accompanies the Bing Crosby album blaring in the background, and everything is wonderful. You politely excuse yourself, and walk back to the kitchen for a refill.

You mix yourself a Christmassy drink, excited for the expensive bottle of liquor you’ve been saving for today, and head back to the family. Your first sip is a little disappointing (it tastes just like the five-dollar-per-pint crap you used to drink in college), but you chalk it up to an unrefined pallet. As you leave, you notice your weird college-aged nephew, Douglas, eying you guiltily from the corner of the room.

“DOUGLASSSS!” you yell, slightly drunkedly as you poke Douglas in his ribs obnoxiously with your index finger. “How’s freshman year at State been treating you?”

It is clear that freshman year at State has not been treating Douglas well. He was a little on the pudgy side beforehe moved on campus from your neurotic sister’s house, and he has clearly been enjoying his new found freedom a little too much. His clothes are dirty, his hair is greasy, his face has broken out, and he’s added a good twenty-five pounds to his petite frame.

“It’s going grrrreeat, Cousin Pat!” he slurs in response. “Hey, I’m having a lot of fun at your party! This cheesecake is delicious! Only thing that would make it better is if it were rum cake! Ha ha ha ha! I’m just kidding. I’m too young to drink rum. Or any alcohol. Ha ha ha ha!”

Your name is not Pat, Douglas is not your cousin, and your suspicions are aroused.

“Glad to hear it, Douglas!” you reply. “Say, what do you have in that cup there?”

“What, this?” he fumbles, nervously. “Just a little decaf coffee. No alcohol here, no-sir-ee. Not for me, I’m only 18. That would be illegal, and I wouldn’t dream of doing something illegal. I’m just not that kind of kid, Cousin Pat!”

Annoyed, you remind Douglas of your name, and demand that he hand over his drink. You take a sip, and realize where your good liquor went. Now you’re faced with a choice: do you ruin the otherwise perfect holiday, or let this slide until later? His parents drove him here, and the only person he could really harm is himself. What should you do?

Well, criminal law and your own moral code may dictate otherwise (see why the distinction was important?), but as far a civil liability goes, you may have some reprieve. The Connecticut Supreme Court addressed a very similar issue in a 2014 case called Stafford v. Roadway.* In Stafford, thetwenty-year-old minor plaintiff showed up to a friend’s barbecue with a garbage bag full of beer (thirty beers, to be precise). While at the barbecue, the plaintiff drank about five of his beers and smoked some marijuana before taking off on foot for a bonfire scheduled later that evening. The plaintiff continued drinking all day, and was quite intoxicated by the time of the bonfire (“only four or five” of the original thirty beers remained at this point). The plaintiff continued to drink until he became so intoxicated that he fell asleep in a chair next to the fire.

After a period of time, the plaintiff woke up and tried to walk off towards the woods to relieve his bladder. Other guests, concerned for his safety, tried to get the plaintiff to sit down, but to no avail. As he was walking, he stumbled and fell into the bonfire. The plaintiff was taken to the hospital for his injuries, where his blood alcohol content was found to be 0.202. As a result of the fall, he suffered serious burns to his hands, forearms, and buttocks. He sued the host of the bonfire, among others, for his injuries.

That’s ridiculous, you say? Well, apparently the jury thought so too, because they returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. Primarily at issue during trial was whether the plaintiff’s own negligence exceeded that of the defendants’ to such an extent as to preclude liability. In other words, the jury was asked to decide whether something the plaintiff did rather than something the defendants did caused the plaintiffs injuries. The jury held that this was in fact the case, and the Supreme Court upheld the grounds for their verdict. After all was said and done, the defendants came out on the winning end.

So what does all of this mean for your drunk, underage nephew Douglas who has clearly had a rough couple of months off at State? Well, it means that at least as far as civil liability goes, you are safe to just let Douglas sleep it off. If he does something to injure himself, the mere fact that he is too young to drink legally is not going to relieve him of his duty to act responsibly.

I hope you enjoyed Part Two of the series. You can find the others at the link below:

Life’s not always fair, but it may be fairer than you think it is. If you’re in a bind, The Law Office of Christopher J. Mutchler may be able to help!

Chris Mutchler
Christopher Mutchler

*Stafford v. Roadway, 312 Conn. 184, 93 A.3d 1058 (2014). 

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