The problem of consumption of alcohol by young people under the Maryland legal drinking age of 21 is well known. This week Maryland’s highest Court for the first time recognized, under certain circumstances, that adults who violate a criminal statute prohibiting knowingly allowing underage drinkers to get intoxicated on their property may also be sued civilly for injuries caused by that consumption of alcohol. The two combined cases heard by the Court of Appeals were called Kiriakos v. Phillips and Dankos v. Stapf.
The Court’s opinion indicates that the allegations in the Kiriakos case were that an 18 year old was drinking alcohol at Phillips’ home, who actually served him drinks. Phillips was alleged to have known that his guest was intoxicated, and told him he could drive away when he felt he was okay to drive. The driver waited until 4 to 5 a.m., but then drove off and struck and killed a pedestrian. The police found him to still have an elevated blood alcohol content at the time.
The Dankos case involved allegations that property owner came home to find her son having a party, which included some underage drinkers. Allegedly the property owner knew some of the drinkers were underage, and was told that a 22-year-old who was about to drive away was intoxicated and took no action. A 17-year-old who became intoxicated at the party was riding in the back of a pickup, when the 22-year-old wrecked the truck and the 17-year-old was killed.
The Court reviewed a criminal statute providing with certain exceptions (including serving alcohol to one’s own child) that an “adult may not knowingly and willfully allow an individual under the age of 21 years actually to possess or consume an alcoholic beverage at a residence… that an adult owns or leases and in which the adult resides.” It discussed earlier cases in which it held, for instance, that a bar was not liable for overserving an adult patron. However, because of the public policy embodied in this criminal statute, the Court found that adults who allow minors to consume alcohol on their property in violation of the statute can be liable if their allowing such consumption is a substantial contributing factor in the harm caused.
It went on to hold that, in the Dankos case, the defense that the minor contributed to his own injury would not be available, in light of the public policy recognizing that the judgment of the underage drinker may be affected by alcohol consumption. On the facts alleged, the Court also found that the pedestrian can sue the owner who provided alcohol on his property to one who drove drunk and injured a third person.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.