LOS ANGELES — California’s highest court is considering a case that could crack a legal shield that has long protected party hosts in the state from most alcohol-related lawsuits, a newspaper reported Monday.
At issue is who is responsible if a young person organizes an underage drinking party and charges for admission and then a drunken guest is hurt or injures someone else.
In the 1970s, the California Supreme Court made social hosts who serve alcohol to intoxicated guests legally liable for their harmful behavior. The Legislature responded by creating immunity for social hosts, but later carved out an exception for individuals who sell alcohol, whether they are licensed or not.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the high court is reviewing a case involving a 2007 party that could shift those rules.
The newspaper said the party was organized by then-20-year-old Jessica Manosa at a rental home owned by her parents, though without their permission. California State University, Fullerton, student Andrew Ennabe, 19, died about a week after being hit by a car outside the home during a dispute, driven by another man who had been asked to leave the gathering.
Ennabe’s family wants to hold Manosa liable for his death, through her parents and their homeowners insurance.
“The question is: Will justice be served when parents who have no knowledge that a party is going on at their house are essentially vicariously liable because they have a … child who throws a party while they are gone?” Gary Watt, an appellate lawyer who represents defendants in such cases, told the newspaper.
Lawyers for the Ennabe’s parents say the answer is yes.
“His parents are still distraught,” said Abdalla J. Innabi, their lead lawyer. “His death really has taken a big chunk out of their lives.”
Strangers who showed up at Manosa’s party were charged $3 to $5 at the door to cover the cost of liquor. The court must decide whether such cover charges, common at student parties, constituted sales.
If so, Manosa could be held liable for Ennabe’s death, and her parents’ insurance company would be responsible for monetary damages.
A trial court and an appeals court decided Manosa was not legally responsible because she did not intend to profit from the entrance fee, but merely to defray the cost of the alcohol.
But during a hearing in December, some members of the state’s highest court appeared ready to overturn the decision.
A ruling is expected by early March, the newspaper said.
A decision for Ennabe’s parents could have wide effect, given the prevalence of teenage parties with cover charges.
The driver of the car, Thomas Garcia, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a sentence of 14 years. He said he had been drinking heavily before he arrived at the party and had no memory of hitting Ennabe.
Since Ennabe’s death, the Legislature has further expanded liability, making parents, guardians and “any adult” responsible if they knowingly serve alcohol at their homes to minors. That law affects only adult hosts, whereas a ruling for Ennabe’s parents would open the way for lawsuits against minors as long as cover charges were involved, lawyers said.