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Md. top court: Hosts can be held liable in underage-drinking cases

A parent or other adult who “knowingly and willfully” hosts an underage drinking party can be held civilly liable for the death or injuries sustained or caused by an intoxicated attendee — such as in a drunken-driving crash, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled Tuesday.

Adults facing potential liability in these cases cannot defend themselves by arguing that the underage person was contributorily negligent by having consumed the alcohol, the Court of Appeals said.

The high court’s ruling marked the first time it has recognized the potential liability of party hosts for the alcohol-related harm caused by their guests under the legal drinking age of 21.

The Court of Appeals based its landmark decision on a Maryland criminal law that makes it illegal to serve alcohol to underage individuals outside of immediate family or a religious service.

Section 10-117(b) of the Criminal Law Article, with its goal of protecting youngsters from the evils of alcohol, intrinsically contains a civil cause of action for people harmed by the adult who violated the law by permitting the underage drinking, the court said.

“[W]e hold that there exists a limited form of social host liability sounding in negligence – based on the strong public policy reflected in CR Section 10-117(b), but that it only exists when the adults in question act knowingly and willfully, as required by the statute,” Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote for the court.

“We view CR Section 10-117(b) as a recognition by the General Assembly, based on convincing evidence, 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,” Adkins added. “It therefore carved out that specific class for special protection against adult social hosts who knowingly and willfully allow consumption of alcoholic beverages on their property.”

Two lawsuits revived

The Court of Appeals’ decision revived two lawsuits victims of drunken-driving incidents brought against adults who hosted parties leading to the underage intoxication.

Nancy Dankos’ claims her 17-year-old son, if sober, would not have accepted a ride in the back of a pickup truck from a drunken partygoer at Linda Stapf’s Ellicott City home. When the truck crashed, Steven was thrown from the back of the vehicle and killed.

In the other lawsuit, Manal Kariakos suffered fractured vertebrae and a lacerated kidney when she was struck in Cockeysville by drunken driver Shetmiyah Robinson, an 18 year-old who had allegedly been served vodka shots by Brandon Phillips.

Both lawsuits were dismissed by judges who cited the absence of any statute or high-court decision enabling adults to be held civilly liable for serving alcohol to minors. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals agreed, prompting the alleged victims to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

Timothy F. Maloney, Dankos’ attorney, hailed the high court’s decision.

“It really helps protect teenagers and young adults from complacent or reckless parents and it also protects third parties from the reckless alcohol decisions of some parents,” said Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt. “There is a class of parents called ‘cool parents,’ and this decision should discourage the cool parents who don’t understand the harm of providing alcohol to teenagers.”

Kariakos’ attorney, Adam Janet, called the decision “groundbreaking” in that a victim of a drunken driver too young to be served alcohol now has a cause of action against the adult who allegedly provided the beverages knowingly and willfully.

“These underage individuals lack the competence and judgment to decide whether to drink and science backs that up,” said Janet, of Janet, Jenner & Suggs LLC in Baltimore.

Lisa Spicknall, Maryland state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also praised the high court’s decision.

“We need to hold parents accountable who throw these parties in order to get them to stop,” Spicknall said. “Unfortunately, that’s what we have to do.”

Neither Clifford A. Robinson, Stapf’s lawyer, nor Phillips’ attorney, Charles E. Wilson III, returned telephone messages Tuesday seeking comment on the high court’s decision. Robinson is with H. Barritt Peterson Jr. & Associates in Towson; Wilson is with Wilson Forte LLP in Hagerstown.

‘Alex and Calvin’s Law’

The high court’s decision follows the General Assembly’s strengthening last session of the criminal law by permitting adults to be jailed for up to one year for knowingly and willfully providing alcohol to or hosting drinking parties attended by those under age 21 who become impaired and seriously injure themselves or others in driving from the event.

The amendment, dubbed “Alex and Calvin’s Law,” was spurred by the deaths of two recent high school graduates who were killed in a drunken-driving crash after attending an underage drinking party. Supporters of the legislation called it obscene that the adult who hosted the party, Kenneth Saltzman, was merely assessed a $5,000 fine and faced no potential jail time under current law.

Alex and Calvin’s Law, which Gov. Larry Hogan signed May 19, goes into effect Oct. 1.

The General Assembly, in addressing the criminal law, did not address the issue of civil liability.

According the Nancy Dankos’ lawsuit, 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.

Erdman later drove from the party in his parent’s GMC pickup truck, with Steven Dankos riding in the bed. The fatal crash soon occurred on Folly Quarter Road.

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.

In the other case, Kariakos 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 Kariakos while she was walking her dogs, according to the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Kariakos 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.

Stampf and Phillips deny the allegations.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in the consolidated cases, Manal Kariakos v. Brandon Phillips and Nancy Dankos et al. v. Linda Stapf, Nos. 20 and 55, September Term 2015.