At first glance, a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision might appear to take those who host teen drinking parties off the hook for the consequences of their misguided actions.
The case involved a 16-year-old girl, Rachel Juliano of Wrentham, who in 2007 was seriously injured when her boyfriend, Christian Dunbar, 19, drove his car into a utility pole. Evidence showed Dunbar had been drinking at a party hosted by 19-year-old Jessica Simpson they had attended earlier in the evening.
However since the evidence showed that neither the host nor the owner of the house, Peter Simpson, who was not home at the time, had provided the alcohol, but rather that it had been brought there by Dunbar, a Superior Court judge ruled the Simpsons could not be held liable for damages. That ruling was affirmed by the SJC.
But Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who has made the fight against underage drinking one of his priorities, was quick to point out that the ruling does not absolve party hosts of criminal liability. And that's a good thing.
Tuesday's high-court ruling in the case of Mark Juliano & others vs. Peter Simpson & another does raise the bar for those seeking to sue for injury or other damages resulting from underage alcohol consumption, when it can be proved the host did not provide the booze. If that bar is too high, the justices declared, it is up to the Legislature rather than the courts to fix it.
Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly stated: "The plaintiffs make a compelling argument that underage drinking and driving is a persistent and widespread societal problem. The Legislature's decision to deter and punish those who facilitate such conduct by the imposition of jail sentences and financial penalties, along with the stigma of a permanent criminal record, lends support to that argument.
"However, the public policy concerns raised in past social host cases remain relevant to our determination of the appropriate scope of common-law tort liability. We have not been given sufficient reason to significantly amend our tort law in the face of sound reasons for maintaining its current status."
We suspect lawmakers, rightly, are already drafting the necessary language to make the adjustments to tort law so those who allow underage drinking in their homes can be held civilly, as well as criminally, liable. But in the meantime, Blodgett makes clear, those parents who see no problem in letting their children host drinking parties could still be thrown in jail if tragedy results, regardless of who supplied the alcohol.
Blodgett, sadly, can recite one case after another in communities throughout his jurisdiction in which teen drinking has resulted in serious injury or worse. He's made it his mission to discourage underage alcohol consumption and parents from looking the other way.
"It does not mean it's a new day as it pertains to social host liability," Blodgett told reporter Ethan Forman regarding this week's decision. "There shouldn't be a false sense of security and going back to the bad old days. ... This is not an invitation to engage in reckless activity."