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Md. high court considers liability for hosts of underage drinking parties

ANNAPOLIS – Attorneys for victims of drunken drivers told Maryland’s top court Thursday that a parent or other adult who hosts an underage drinking party can be held civilly liable for an intoxicated attendee’s death or injuries sustained by someone struck by an inebriated teenager driving from the event.

Lower courts have dismissed the two lawsuits – one involving the death of a 17-year-old boy – saying Maryland does not recognize party hosts’ civil liability for the alcohol-related harm caused by their guests.

Attorney Timothy F. Maloney, representing 17-year-old Steven Dankos’ mother, Nancy, noted Maryland law makes it a misdemeanor crime for adults to “knowingly and willfully” allow someone under age 21 to possess or consume an alcoholic beverage at the adult’s home. The criminal statute’s goal of protecting underage partygoers from intoxication also gives them a civil cause of action against adults who violate the law, despite the absence of a specific right-to-sue statute, Maloney told the Court of Appeals.

The criminal statute has “a very narrow class of protectees,” Maloney said, referring to individuals under age 21. “The protectee is the minor who is not supposed to be intoxicated.”

The adult host thus owes a “special duty” to underage guests, said Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.

But attorney Clifford A. Robinson, pressing the case of the adult who allegedly hosted the party Dankos attended, said a civil cause of action cannot be read into a criminal statute. The General Assembly could enact a law providing a civil cause of action against the adults but it has not, said Robinson, of H. Barritt Peterson Jr. & Associates in Towson.

“Public policy is to be decided by the legislature,” he told the high court on behalf of Linda Stapf, the alleged host.

The other lawsuit was brought by a woman who claims she was severely injured when she was struck by an allegedly drunk, 18-year-old driver who had been served alcohol at an adult’s home.

An attorney for Manal Kirakos told the high court that basic tenets of personal-injury law provide Kiriakos a cause of action against Brandon Phillips, who had allegedly served vodka shots to the underage Shetmiyah Robinson.

Phillips could have foreseen that plying Robinson with alcohol would result in his drunken driving and the injuries Kiriakos sustained, including fractures to her vertebrae and a lacerated kidney, said attorney Adam Janet of Janet, Jenner & Suggs LLC in Baltimore.

But Phillips’ attorney, Charles E. Wilson III, said causes of action against social hosts should be set by the General Assembly, and the legislature has yet to impose such liability.

“If it wanted to do something civilly, it could have,” said Wilson, of Wilson Forte LLP in Hagerstown. “It is a complicated issue and one that should be left to the legislature to decide.”

Judges divided

Court of Appeals judges appeared to be as divided as the attorneys over imposing civil liability on parents hosting parties involving underage drinking.

Judge Sally D. Adkins, for example, said the high court has the authority to find a cause of action in the absence of a right-to-sue statute.

“In a negligence action, we don’t always wait for the legislature,” Adkins said.

But Judges Glenn T. Harrell Jr. and Lynne A. Battaglia wondered where the line would be drawn with regard to the adult’s duty to prevent injury to the youngster or to those he or she may harm while drunk.

Harrell, a retired judge sitting by special assignment, asked how many drinks must a minor consume to give rise to cause of action; Battaglia questioned whether a parent could be held liable if a high-school student took a beer out of the refrigerator.

Janet told Harrell that “no amount of drinks are OK” if the drinker is underage; Maloney said the parent is not liable for the teenager who sneaks a beer, as the liability issue concerns adults who open their homes with the knowledge that underage drinking will result.

The cases are Nancy Dankos (F/K/A Nancy Davis) v. Linda Stapf, No. 55 September Term 2015, and Manal Kiriakos v. Brandon Phillips, No. 20 September Term 2015. The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision in the cases by Aug. 31.

Increased penalties

Violators of Maryland Criminal Law Article Section 10-117(b) – the prohibition on serving alcohol to those under 21 – can be fined up to $2,500 for a first offense and up to $5,000 for each subsequent violation.

Legislation pending before the General Assembly this session would increase the penalties under the law by adding a potential jail sentence of up to one year for a first offense and up to two years for each subsequent violation. Senate Bill 564 and House Bill 409 would also increase the maximum fines to $5,000 for a first offense and $7,500 for each subsequent offense.

Legislation to provide for a civil cause of action has not been introduced this session.

Thrown 70 feet

According to the lawsuit Dankos’ mother brought, Stapf bought about $115 worth of alcohol for the Nov. 28, 2009, party at her Ellicott City home, which she knew would be attended by high school students. Stapf appeared at least four times at the party, held largely in her garage, and saw numerous underage teenagers drinking the alcohol but told nobody to stop and took no steps to prevent intoxication, stated Nancy Dankos’ lawsuit.

Steven Dankos was among the drunk teenagers.

In the wee hours of Nov. 29, 22-year-old David Erdman’s sister warned Stampf that he was too drunk to drive, but the host did nothing to stop him, the lawsuit stated.

Shortly after, Erdman drove from the party in his parent’s GMC pickup truck, with Steven Dankos riding in the bed. The crash soon occurred on Folly Quarter Road, with Steven being thrown from the vehicle and killed.

Erdman, who had a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit, pleaded guilty to homicide with a motor vehicle and was sentenced to five years in prison with all but 18 months suspended, according to court documents.

Howard County Circuit Court Judge Louis A. Becker III dismissed the civil lawsuit in 2013, ruling hosts bear no liability to people injured as a result of having being served alcohol and that the criminal statue concerning alcohol consumption by minors creates no civil liability.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld Becker’s dismissal in a reported opinion Aug. 26. Dankos then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

In the other case, Kiriakos alleged Phillips’ providing of alcohol to Robinson, then 18, led to the youngster’s drunken driving at about 6 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2011. Robinson drove his SUV over the center of Scott Adam Road in Cockeysville and struck Kiriakos while she was walking her dogs, according to the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Kiriakos was thrown more than 70 feet and landed in the snow. Robinson later pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen Gallogly Cox granted Phillips’ motion for summary judgment, which the Court of Special Appeals upheld in an unreported opinion in December 2014.

Kiriakos then sought review by the Court of Appeals.