Legally Speaking

In this period of graduation parties and summer parties for recent graduates and current high schoolers, parents permitting underage persons to drink alcohol face significant risks. Some recent Wisconsin cases have analyzed and clarified those risks.

It should first be mentioned that a person who provides alcohol to a person under the age of 18 can be subject to criminal felony charges if the underage person dies or suffers great bodily harm as a result of consuming the alcohol (Wis. Stats. §125.075). It is also unlawful to provide alcohol beverages to persons under the age of 21 unless that person is accompanied by a parent or guardian (Wis. Stats. §125.07). Those statutes deal with criminal liability for providing alcohol to underage persons. The other aspect, which carries completely different penalties, is the civil liability for those offenses.

Wisconsin has developed a body of law insulating providers of alcohol from being liable for the events flowing from consumption of that alcohol in most instances. One of the most important instances in which there is no immunity from liability is the provision of alcohol to underage persons who are not accompanied by a parent or guardian. In a case decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in March 2008, an underage driver had attended a party and later was involved in an alcohol related car accident. The injured party sued the owners of the property at which the party occurred even though the owners, who were the parents of the party provider, did not provide the alcohol to the underage driver. The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that the claim for negligence could not be maintained against social hosts who were allegedly aware that minors on their property were consuming alcohol but who did not provide the alcohol (Nichols v. Progressive Ins. Co.). Allowing the party to take place without providing the alcohol did not cause the parents to be liable for damages (but could create a criminal liability).

In a case just decided June 3, 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court again considered the liability for an alcohol related crash by an underage driver. In Richards v. Badger Mutual Ins., a 31-year-old co-worker provided beer to a 19-year-old for use at a party. The survivors of the deceased driver sued both the adult provider of the alcohol and the underage party host. The court found that the underage driver and the party host were liable for the death, but applied some unusual facts to determine that the adult provider of the alcohol was not responsible in that case.

While both of these cases ultimately provided some level of protection to adult social hosts, the lesson to be taken away from these cases is that all of these individuals ended up in significant and expensive litigation which went all the way to the State Supreme Court to avoid liability. Those costs in themselves were in the tens of thousands of dollars and quite possibly over $100,000. The bottom line is that the risk is just too great that something will go wrong. If it does, the provider of alcohol, the host of the party, and the owner of the property are all at risk of being entangled in significant and expensive litigation in addition to the potential criminal penalties involved.

This column is based on general principles of Wisconsin law, is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide legal advice. Each legal matter must be judged on the merits of its unique circumstances. If you have a legal problem, consult an attorney.

Randall J. Nesbitt is an attorney at Pinkert Law Firm LLP with offices in Sturgeon Bay and Sister Bay. 920.743.6505 or 920.854.2616.