Riding Stables Settle for Social Host Liability After Serving Alcohol to Minor Injured in Accident
By: Mary Ann Pekara
Illinois has been confronting the issue of underage drinking for some time, as Illinois state senators and representatives have contemplated and passed several bills for harsher regulation of this tragic problem.
One bill that recently passed the Illinois General Assembly suspends for 3 months the license of anyone under the age of 21 caught drinking alcohol. The incident that prompted the passage of this bill was the death of five Oswego teenagers in a drunk driving accident on February 11, 2007.
In 2004, the general assembly passed a previous law designed to stop underage drinking at the source: the Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act. Referring to it as "social host liability," the politicians who pushed this bill through hoped that it would not have be used, and certainly not as quickly as it did.
The Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act is similar to Dram Shop liability laws that hold bars and other businesses that serve beer liable for death or injury to third-parties, if the person who was intoxicated and served at the establishment is visibly intoxicated or a minor.
The Illinois dram shop laws can hold these establishments liable if the defendant can provide proof sale of alcohol to the patron; injuries sustained by the patron; proximate cause between the alcohol sale and intoxication; and that intoxication was at least one cause of third-party damages.
However, recently the first lawsuit filed for social host liability was settled out of court for $1.625 million, arising from an accident involving DUI just a month after the bill went into effect.
On October 30, 2004, a 16-year-old Kenosha girl named Melissa Wolkomir received several severe injuries in a car accident with three friends leaving a Halloween party. All four girls were minors at the time of the accident.
The party was held at a barn in Wadsworth, Wisconsin, hosted by Kelly's on 41 Equestrian Center and Patch 22 Ltd., a company that provides equipment and services for hay rides.
Even though kegs of beer were available to party guests, the party hosts did not check IDs or hire servers to check IDs.
Initially, this would not have been a concern for the hosts, since all of the guests invited to the party were adults. However, according to the owners, the girls were not invited guests. The 23-year-old boyfriend of one of the girls played guitar in a band performing at the party.
According to depositions made by the girls, the four brought vodka to the party, and mixed it with Mountain Dew.
The driver of the car, Angela Curtis, drank two beers herself from the alcohol provided at the party.
When the girls left the party at 11:30 PM that night, Curtis made an illegal turn north on U.S. Highway 41. The car was hit by a semi tractor-trailer, and Melissa Wolkomir was thrown out of her seat in the back of the car. None of the other girls, nor the driver of the semi truck, were injured in the accident.
When police arrived at the scene, and Curtis was asked to take a breath test, the breathalyzer reading found that her blood alcohol content was .08 percent, exactly the legal limit for DUI in the state of Illinois. She was ticketed for driving under the influence and was convicted for DUI after pleading guilty to the charge.
Because the girls were under the age of 21, and were served alcohol illegally, both Kelly's and Patch 22 could have been found liable for injuries, under the newly effective Drug or Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act.
In any lawsuit under the social host liability act, the plaintiff must prove to the court that the host of the party was negligent in not performing sufficient regulation of underage drinking that led to the delinquency or injury of the minor.
Wolkomir and her family deemed that Kelly's and Patch 22 had been negligent in her case, and filed their lawsuit in Lake County Circuit Court in Waukegan, seeking compensation for severe neurological injuries to Wolkomir that have left her with only restricted use of her left leg and arm.
Though they deny liability for the incident, citing the police reports that the girls had come uninvited with liquor of their own, the companies decided that reaching a settlement was the fastest way to complete the legal process.
Per the settlement agreement, Wolkomir received $1 million from Kelly's and $625,000 from Patch 22, the full amounts for the companies' insurance policies.
Both businesses remained open after the incident, though Kelly's has changed its policies on parties: now they only sponsor kids' parties, so there will be no booze in sight.