A Plainville mother, whose daughter’s alcohol-related death made headlines throughout Massachusetts in 2008, announced, at a press conference held on Thursday, that she and her lawyer had filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Norfolk Superior Court against several people who provided the teenage girl with alcohol on the night of the girl’s death. The lawsuit raises a number of legal questions pertaining to liquor liability that have not been settled by Massachusetts courts.
According to news reports of the lawsuit, Taylor Meyer, a seventeen year old girl, drowned in a Norfolk, MA swamp after drinking in several homes, including a home where a mother allegedly made alcohol available to the teens. Eventually Taylor wound up at a bonfire party, where she asked several other teens how to get from the remote location where she was in the woods back to her home. The teenagers apparently knowingly and cruelly directed the Taylor into the swampland surrounding the clearing. An autopsy of Taylor revealed a high blood alcohol level.
Taylor’s mother, Kathi Jean Meyer, noted at Thursday’s press conference that she did not expect Taylor’s estate to recover a large amount of money out of the lawsuit and that the lawsuit was a matter of principle that would hopefully help raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol. Kathi Jean may be correct that the wrongful death lawsuit she filed faces an uphill climb. However, there is also reason to believe that this case might end in a large settlement. The strengths of the Meyer case will be the subject of today’s blog post.
Liquor liability in Massachusetts can basically be divided into two categories: dram shop liability and social host liability. Dram shop liability is the kind of liability that attaches to commercial establishments, such as bars and restaurants, that serve alcohol. Social host liability is the kind of liability that attaches to people who serve alcohol at private parties. (The lines here can be kind of fuzzy – for example, a corporate picnic might be a setting where the principles of dram shop liability apply). The Meyer case primarily raises issues of social host liability.
Massachusetts law in the area of social host liability is surprisingly unsettled and hostile to plaintiffs. Massachusetts courts have consistently ruled that “social hosts” are not liable if the person drinking the alcohol injures him or herself, even if the person who consumed the alcohol is an adult who is below legal drinking age. Hamilton v. Ganias, 417 Mass. 666 (1994); Sampson v. MacDougall, 60 Mass. App. Ct. 394 (2004). The Meyer case presents a set of facts that Massachusetts courts have not yet pronounced upon: whether adult social hosts are liable for the injuries of minor guests to whom they serve alcohol. Since Taylor Meyer was seventeen at the time of her death (a minor), the Massachusetts precedents holding that social hosts are not liable for injuries to their adult, but underaged guests, would not apply.
(A couple of side notes: while Massachusetts courts have held that social hosts are not liable for injuries to their guests caused by alcohol that they serve their guests, the same rules do not apply to injured third parties. So while a social host might not be liable to their guest for their guest’s injuries, if the guest gets behind the wheel and injures a third party, the host may be liable to that third party for that third party’s injuries.)
Since Massachusetts courts have not ruled on whether a party host may be held liable for injuries to a minor guest resulting from serving that minor guest alcohol, any adult hosts who served Meyer alcohol might have an incentive to settle early on before the court creates a new legal rule clearly defining their responsibility. In other words, even if their legal liability is not clearly established, the adult party hosts might want to pay out before the court makes rulings that might establish their liability and make the plaintiff estate demand more money.
Most likely the adult defendants in this case have assets, like homes and retirement savings, that could all be lost if a judgment were entered against them. Meyer’s lawsuit against the defendants is a wrongful death action. The Massachusetts wrongful death statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 229 Section 2, entitles plaintiffs to recover the net lifetime earnings of their deceased family member. In a case involving the death of a seventeen year old girl, the net lifetime earnings would, by any conservative estimate, run into the millions of dollars. In addition, the Massachusetts wrongful death statute allows for plaintiffs to recover punitive damages (punitive damages are generally not available under Massachusetts law). These punitive damages could multiply a multi-million dollar judgment based on lifetime income and lost companionship by a factor of ten or more without a danger of the verdict being struck down on appeal.
Since a judgment of that size would prove ruinous to all but the wealthiest defendants, the defendant adults in this case might have an incentive to settle even if there are questions about their legal liability.
Even if a plaintiff’s attorney had doubts about recovering a judgment of that size from the defendants’ personal assets, a plaintiff’s attorney might still pursue the case because of the possibility of recovering from homeowner’s insurance policies. This is another area where Massachusetts law is unsettled. Massachusetts courts have never ruled on whether a typical homeowner’s insurance policy covers non-automobile-related injuries arising from a party where an underaged teen was served alcohol. However, in one such case, a Massachusetts court ruled that the insurance company had at least a “duty to defend” the homeowner parents – that is the court required the homeowner’s insurance policy to pay for lawyers to defend the family. Worcester Mutual Insurnace Co. v. Marnell, 398 Mass. 240 (1986).
To sum up today’s post, the unsettled questions surrounding social host liability under these circumstances, the potential for astronomical damages and the potential recovery from insurance companies are all legal weapons that Taylor Meyer’s estate can leverage to (ideally) recover a large settlement.
What Kathi Jean Meyer is doing in this case is a public service. This case has the potential to change Massachusetts law in the area of social host liability. If Meyer succeeds in making law of social host liability stricter in Massachusetts, she will likely help reduce the number of senseless alcohol-related deaths in Massachusetts.
Many mothers whose children’s deaths have been caused by alcohol, such as the mothers involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have focused on criminal sanctions directed at the intoxicated person. And, by focusing on criminal law, they have succeeded in reducing alcohol-related deaths.
Perhaps now however such activists should concentrate on the civil law as an avenue for reducing alcohol-related tragedies such as Taylor Meyer’s death. Strengthening and expanding social host liability stands a good chance of reducing alcohol-related accidents because social hosts often are sober while their guests are not. The possibility of a sober social host putting the brakes on the actions of an inebriated guest would be a welcome sight in Massachusetts.
Tomorrow, in Part II of this blog post, we will discuss some of the legal challenges that the Meyer case will face.
Mother sues party mates of dead teen, boston.com, January 14, 2010
Mother files lawsuit after daughter’s drowning death at party, bostonherald.com, January 13, 2010