August 4, 2016 Trial News | The American Association For Justice

August 4, 2016 Trial News

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Maryland adults will face civil liability for serving alcohol to underage individuals

Diane M. Zhang

photo of champagne poured into flute

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that adults who serve underage drinkers at their homes may face civil liability if a third party or underage drinker gets hurt. The decision arose from two individual cases: Dankos v. Stapf, in which an underage drinker was ejected from a truck driven by an intoxicated friend and killed, and Kiriakos v. Phillips, in which a third-party pedestrian was struck by a car that an underage drinker was driving.
 

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that adults who serve underage drinkers at their homes may face civil liability if a third party or underage drinker gets hurt. (Kiriakos v. Phillips, 2016 WL 3587466 (Md. July 5, 2016).) The decision arose from two individual cases: Dankos v. Stapf, in which an underage drinker was ejected from a truck driven by an intoxicated friend and killed, and Kiriakos v. Phillips, in which a third-party pedestrian was struck by a car that an underage drinker was driving.

In Dankos, Linda Stapf came home to a party at her house. Although she knew that some guests—including 17-year-old Steve Dankos, a friend of her son—were drinking alcohol, she did not stop them. Early the next morning, Dankos left with 22-year-old David Erdman, who had also been drinking the previous evening at Stapf’s house. Erdman, who was still intoxicated, crashed his truck, killing Dankos. His mother sued Stapf, alleging breach of a duty to act and other claims.

In Kiriakos, 18-year-old Shetmiyah Robinson drove his SUV into Manal Kiriakos, a pedestrian, while intoxicated. Robinson had been drinking at Brandon Phillips’s house. Phillips—who was 26 and knew Robinson was 18—had served him alcohol and let him drive home even though he knew Robinson was intoxicated. Kiriakos sued Phillips, alleging that he had a public duty not to provide alcohol to an underage individual when he knew or should have known that the person would drive under the influence.

In both cases, the defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Although Maryland law holds parents criminally liable for serving alcohol to underage individuals, it does not hold them civilly liable. The trial court granted both defendants’ motions to dismiss. Dankos and Kiriakos came before Maryland’s highest court with the same question—had the trial court properly granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim?

In Maryland, the judiciary has historically rejected third-party liability in cases involving alcohol-related injuries. Attorney Timothy Maloney of Greenbelt, Md., who represented Dankos, pointed out that Maryland has no dram shop laws, meaning that if a business serves alcohol to a clearly intoxicated guest, it will not be liable if the guest injures someone as a result. This sets Maryland apart from most of the country: More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some version of a dram shop law. “Dram shop bills have failed in the Maryland legislature for years,” Maloney noted. “The Maryland Court of Appeals has specifically rejected [them], with the majority saying this is a legislative decision.”

In 1996, however, the Maryland legislature decided to impose criminal liability on adults who serve alcohol to underage individuals. CR §10-117(b) states 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.” The Court of Appeals relied on this statute to determine whether the plaintiffs demonstrated the required element of duty—specifically, whether the of-age adults had a duty to refrain from serving alcohol to underage drinkers.

In Maryland, a statute can prescribe a duty, and violation of the statute can be evidence of negligence. Plaintiffs must demonstrate, however, that the statute was designed to protect a specific class of people and that the violation proximately caused the injury.

Although the Dankos defendant argued that the statute’s purpose was to deter drinking and driving rather than to protect a specific group of people, the court disagreed. Recognizing that the law held adults criminally responsible for underage drinking in specific circumstances, the court concluded that the legislature’s concern was for a certain class of individuals. Specifically, CR §10-117(b) was meant to protect people under 21, unrelated to the homeowner, who are not consuming alcohol for religious purposes.  

Baltimore attorney Steven Kelly, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), emphasized the importance of the statute naming a specific class of people. “Unlike in general dram shop laws,” he said, “here we have a criminal statute that shows the Maryland General Assembly recognized the harms that flow from adults providing alcohol to underage individuals.” His colleague, Christopher Mincher, agreed. “This statute specifically targets people under 21,” he said. “For example, a dram shop statute that is for the protection ‘of the people of the state’ may be too broad.”

The second prong of the court’s analysis focused on proximate cause. The Dankos defendant argued that the proximate cause of Dankos’s death was his decision to drink—not the fact that Stapf willfully and knowingly allowed him to continue drinking on her premises. Dankos’s mother argued that her son would not have gotten into the car with an intoxicated driver had his judgment not been severely impaired by alcohol and that Stapf’s failure to stop his alcohol consumption was a proximate cause of Dankos's death.

The court agreed with her. Dankos’s death, it reasoned, was exactly the type of injury the legislature sought to prevent when it passed the criminal statute. The court stressed that it was not concluding that people under 21 were completely free of responsibility for their actions. Rather, it recognized—as the drafters of the criminal statute did—that “children under 21 are often less able to make responsible decisions regarding the consumption of alcohol and, as a result, are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a social, peer-pressured setting.” Given Dankos’s age, a jury could find that Stapf’s failure to take action was a proximate cause of his death.

The court’s decision in Kiriakos on proximate cause was premised on similar reasoning. In Kiriakos, the injured individual was a third party hit by an underage drinker. The question was not whether the defendant owed a duty to an underage drinker; rather, it was whether the defendant owed the duty to a third party. The court, relying on the theory of negligent entrustment, held that Phillips did. Phillips served Robinson alcohol although he knew Robinson would have to drive home. Given that Robinson’s drunk driving and Kiriakos’s injuries were both foreseeable, the court held, a jury could find that Phillips was the proximate cause of Kiriakos’s injuries.

The foreseeability of the injuries was a common theme that ran through both cases. In Dankos, Stapf knew that other party guests were concerned about Erdman’s ability to drive, that Dankos had no other way home, and that he was not capable of making an informed or intelligent decision. In Kiriakos, Phillips was aware of Robinson’s age and his level of intoxication but failed to act when Robinson chose to drive home.  

Notably, the court denied the defense of contributory negligence in both cases. The defendants could not escape liability on grounds that the plaintiffs were partially responsible, the court held, because the defendants violated a statute whose entire purpose was to shift the burden of responsibility away from the protected class. “Those who willfully provide alcohol to minors or other underage individuals are enablers, and the court rightly recognized that they should be held accountable,” said Baltimore attorney Adam Janet, who represented Kiriakos.

Kelly believes that the decision is a solid step forward for Maryland. “Maryland is in so many respects an outlier in terms of how it treats tort law,” he explained. “This is progressive. It definitely constitutes a movement toward what the rest of the country has been doing.”

MADD’s general counsel, Adam Vanek, agrees—and stresses the importance of holding parents liable. “Let’s be clear,” he said. “Underage drinking is an adult problem. The ruling puts so called ‘cool parents’ on notice that they will be held morally, criminally, and now financially responsible for the consequences of their actions.”