Even though it is against the law in Maryland for an adult to provide alcohol to underage drinkers, some parents nonetheless let teens host drinking parties at their homes. Maybe they think they are being "cool." Maybe they rationalize that because their children are going to drink anyway, better they do it at home. Whatever their excuse, parents should know that in addition to facing fines and the possibility of jail, they now also run the risk of being sued if an underage drinker they host gets hurt or hurts someone else.
That is because of a landmark ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that establishes civil liability for adults who knowingly and willfully provide alcohol to those under age 21. The court has generally followed the rule that people, whether drunk or sober, are responsible for their own conduct and in the past declined to hold bar owners responsible for the actions of drunken people. But in its July 5 ruling, the court said a different standard must be applied when children are involved. "Underage persons are not solely responsible for drinking alcohol on an adult's property because they are not competent to handle the effects of this potentially dangerous substance," Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote for the court.
The precedent-setting decision stems from two cases that now will be returned to the trial courts. One was brought by a Baltimore County woman who was seriously injured after getting hit by an 18-year-old driver who had been drinking at the home of a man he worked with; the other involved a Howard County woman whose 17-year-old son got drunk at a party at a friend's house and was killed after getting a ride with another partygoer, who was also drunk. In both cases, court documents show the adults were fully aware of the illegal drinking and enabled it.
"Pernicious, pervasive, and deadly, especially when motor vehicles are involved," is how the Maryland appeals court characterized the harm that alcohol poses to youths. It cited findings showing that among all fatally injured alcohol-impaired drivers, the percentage of such drivers who are age 16 to 20 has been about 25 percent since 1995. So let's hope Tim Maloney, the attorney representing the Howard County mother who lost her son, is right that this ruling, which brings Maryland in line with some 30 other states, will be a wake-up call in discouraging other parents from being a party to underage drinking. Said Maloney: "This has been an epidemic in some communities, when these kids go out and get behind the wheel and someone pays the price." Those who enable them should pay, too.