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House party hosts face heightened liability after recent COA ruling

December 30, 2015

Just in time for holiday revelry and New Year’s Eve celebrations, an Indiana appeals court ruled hosts of house parties may be held liable for the well-being of guests who drink too much.

Teel Teel

“This is really the first time any (Indiana) appellate court has announced a duty on the part of a social host to render aid to one of their guests,” said Andrew L. Teel, an attorney at Haller & Colvin P.C. in Fort Wayne. Teel won reinstatement of a Dram Shop Act claim on behalf of the estate of a man who died after a friend’s birthday party.

“We’re still trying to figure out how big a deal this is in expanding Indiana law,” Teel said.

Sevenish Sevenish

Indianapolis attorney Randall Sevenish, who represents plaintiffs in dram shop cases, said the Dec. 14 opinion of the Indiana Court of Appeals is clear. “Social hosts be forewarned – you have a clear duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances of hosting a function on your premises,” he said.

“The Court of Appeals is now very clear when it comes to the social host/guest relationship. It is a special relationship that now requires a social host to render assistance to an injured person in his/her home regardless of the cause of injury,” Sevenish said.

The appeals panel reversed summary judgment granted in Allen Superior Court in favor of the hosts of a birthday party where Paul Michalik died in 2010. Michalik had been drinking and was involved in a fight before hosts Brian Brothers and Angela Martin found him unconscious in their basement after most guests had left Brothers’ birthday party at the home he shared with Martin.

Martin went back to bed but asked her then-boyfriend Brothers to make sure Michalik left, according to the record. Brothers and another man carried Michalik upstairs and out of the house, but police later found him dead in the yard.

In reversing summary judgment for the hosts on a Dram Shop Act claim against them, COA Judge Michael Barnes widened the scope of potential liability for house party hosts. “(W)e conclude that Martin, as a social host, owed Michalik a duty to render aid, and questions of fact remain whether she breached that duty,” the appeals court held. The case is F. John Rogers, as Personal Representative of Paul Michalik, Deceased, and R. David Boyer, Trustee of the Bankruptcy Estate of Jerry Lee Chambers v. Angela Martin and Brian Paul Brothers, 02A05-1506-CT-520.

Ashley O’Neil, an attorney at Malloy Law LLC who represented Brothers and Martin, declined to comment on the case, and would not say whether the defendants will petition for transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court.

“It seems to me there certainly was an issue in fact in the dram shop case” precluding summary judgment, Highland attorney Burton Padove said. Questions for the jury include whether the defendants furnished alcohol to Michalik when he was intoxicated. “The part of the case that’s extremely significant is the expansion of the duty owed an invitee. … It could have a significant impact on the law in Indiana.

“I think the court is sitting there saying, ‘Look, if you’re hosting a party and you become aware someone is hurt, it’s only the right thing to do to make sure they receive medical care,’” Padove said. “They’re going to let the jury determine from a factual basis whether (defendants’) conduct was sufficient to satisfy their duty.”

Indiana Code 7.1-5-10-15 spells out the prohibition on furnishing alcohol to intoxicated people for the purposes of dram shop liability. Such cases have primarily focused on the duties of bars, taverns and commercial establishments, but lawyers said a growing body of case law deals with individuals’ direct or proximate liability.

While the facts in the Rogers case are somewhat novel, Teel said the Court of Appeals’ conclusion could have wide applicability.

“I don’t view this as a bright-line case, I view it as a common-sense rule,” he said. “If someone’s passed out, they’ve been assaulted or are very clearly in need of aid, the Court of Appeals is saying human decency says it’s not too much to pick up a phone and call 911.

“I think probably the facts of this case don’t come up often,” he said. “I think, though, the idea of people at a party drinking to excess and needing assistance is probably not a novel situation. … Humanitarian concerns and common decency require taking at least minimum steps to make sure aid is rendered.”

Sevenish said whether the defendants in the Allen County case bear liability will remain a fact-sensitive question on remand. Nevertheless, he said the COA opinion makes clear a host may be required to render aid “when that person cannot otherwise protect themselves due to injury or state of consciousness – even if the injury or condition may not have been due to the clear negligence by the social host.”

The ruling also may spur lawmakers, Padove and Sevenish said. “A social host needs to be held accountable should their actions or inactions result in harm to a guest,” Sevenish said.

Padove said lawmakers may look at adding language to the Good Samaritan Act, I.C. 34-30-12-1, to shield from liability people who render aid to others who have over-imbibed. The law currently grants immunity to people who come to the aid of those “at the scene of an emergency or accident.”

“Once privy to the specific facts and circumstances of this particular case, it would be amazing to me indeed that … lawmakers would not find sufficient reasons to amend the present Dram Shop (Act),” Sevenish said.

Teel said the potential liability of homeowners under dram shop laws has become common enough that some insurers have taken notice. “It’s been applied enough that you will find there are exclusions for this kind of liability in some homeowners’ policies,” he said.•

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