It is common knowledge that an intoxicated person may be held liable for causing injury to another. The question arises, however, if a purveyor of alcohol or social host would be held liable for the harm caused by a person consuming alcohol on their premises. The laws vary quite a bit from state to state; this commentary will focus on the liability for Nevada businesses and social hosts.
Social Host Liability is Limited
Unlike many other States, Nevada does not hold purveyors or social hosts liable for the behavior of their guests, so long as the guests are at least twenty-one years of age. Because there are so many different places where a guest could drink without a bar employee or social host having actual knowledge of how much liquor the guest has consumed, the legislature could not find a reasonable basis to declare these third parties liable for the actions of their patrons.
There is an exception. If a minor (person less than twenty-one years old) consumes alcohol at a residence or business, the host or seller may be held liable for the damage caused by the underage individual. NRS 41.1305 is instructive:
NRS 41.1305 Liability of person who serves, sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages for damages caused as a result of consumption of alcoholic beverage: No liability if person served is 21 years of age or older; liability in certain circumstances if person served is under 21 years of age; exception to liability; damages, attorney’s fees and costs.
1. A person who serves, sells or otherwise furnishes an alcoholic beverage to another person who is 21 years of age or older is not liable in a civil action for any damages caused by the person to whom the alcoholic beverage was served, sold or furnished as a result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage.
2. Except as otherwise provided in this section, a person who:
(a) Knowingly serves, sells or otherwise furnishes an alcoholic beverage to an underage person; or
(b) Knowingly allows an underage person to consume an alcoholic beverage on premises or in a conveyance belonging to the person or over which the person has control, is liable in a civil action for any damages caused by the underage person as a result of the consumption of the alcoholic beverage.
But what does “knowingly” mean? If construed in its most strict sense, so long as the dram shop (the old legal term for alcohol sellers) had no actual knowledge that the patron is underage (meaning, that the minor never actually informed the bar employee that he is not at least twenty-one), then there would be no liability for the establishment or the employee. This is an incorrect reading of the law.
The Legislative Counsel’s Digest (This is where the legislature leaves notes so that the public can have a better understanding of what they intend a law to mean), from 29 May 2007, is helpful:
[The legislation] makes a person liable in a civil action for damages caused as a result of the consumption of alcohol by an underage person if he knowingly served, sold or furnished alcohol to the underage person or allowed the underage person to consume alcohol on premises or in a conveyance belonging to him or over which he had control. (Emphasis added).
I think we can safely say that a strict construction of the term “knowingly” is inappropriate. By assigning civil liability to those who “allow” minors to consume alcohol on his or her premises, the legislature requires hosts and servers of alcohol to take reasonable care in preventing minors from drinking at their establishments. This includes, but is not limited to, verifying the age of guests or patrons.
Since the Gaming Board does not look kindly upon serving underage individuals, there is a strong incentive for businesses to verify the age of their bar patrons. However, for a regular person just hosting a few (dozen?) folks at his or her home, he or she will want to verify the age of the guests before serving them. Although the Gaming Board has no power to take a license away from you, the potential for being sued because of the irresponsibility of one of your underage guests, should be plenty of incentive to ensure everyone is of age.