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Homeowner can be liable for party injuries resulting in death, but not for furnishing alcohol

October 26, 2016

The Indiana Supreme Court held Wednesday that a woman whose party guest died at her home after a drunken brawl could be considered negligent because she did not seek care for the guest, but not on the basis of supplying alcohol to the men involved in the fight.

The case against Angela Martin began in May 2010, when she hosted a party with her now-husband Brian Brothers for roughly 50 people at Martin’s home. Among the guests were Jerry Chambers and his significant other, Paul Michalik.

Brothers purchased a keg of beer for the party using a debit card he shared with Martin. Throughout the night, Brothers had a couple of shots and a few beers, despite his probation for an operating while intoxicated conviction. At 3:30 a.m., Brothers told Chambers and Michalik that it was time to leave, and a fist fight ensued between the three of them. When he woke up, Brothers asked Martin to help him to get Chambers and Michalik to leave.

When Martin walked down to the basement where the couple had been sitting, she saw Michalik lying motionless on the floor with his eyes closed. She, Chambers and Brothers confirmed that Michalik was still breathing, so Martin did not call the police. However, the police did arrive shortly thereafter and found Michalik lying dead in the yard. Brothers was arrested and was incarcerated for violations to his OWI parole.

Complaints were filed against Martin and Brothers on behalf of Chambers and Michalik’s estate, alleging that Martin was liable because she had negligently caused Michalik’s injuries and had caused Chambers and Michalik’s injuries by furnishing alcohol to Brothers, who was intoxicated. The Allen Superior Court granted summary judgment to Martin on both claims, but the Court of Appeals reversed, writing in 2015 that she owed a duty to Michalik to render aid and that there was a question of fact as to whether she furnished Brothers with the beer.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote in a unanimous opinion Wednesday that although Martin was not liable for failure to protect Michalik from an unforeseeable fistfight, there was still a question of fact as to whether her inaction after finding Michalik on the floor breached her duty to protect him from the foreseeable exacerbation of the injuries he sustained at her home.

Concerning that question of fact, the high court decided that homeowners should reasonably expect that a party guest who is injured on the premises could suffer from an exacerbation of those injuries. Thus, based on the undisputed evidence that shows that Martin did not act when she saw Michalik lying motionless on the floor, Rush wrote that she had breached her duty to him and, thus, held that summary judgment in favor of Martin on the negligence charge was improper.

But on the charge of liability against Martin on the basis that she furnished alcohol to Brothers, the Indiana Supreme Court decided that summary judgment was proper. Chambers and Michalik’s claims referenced the Indiana Dram Shop Act, which holds that a person who furnishes alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person who then causes injury is liable for the injuries. But Rush wrote that because Brothers  and Martin jointly purchased the keg of beer with the shared debit card, Martin’s actions could not be considered furnishing alcohol to Brothers because he already possessed it.

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, 02S05-1603-CT-114.

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