Parents Responsible for Underage Drinking


With New Year’s Eve upon us and a plethora of parties soon to begin, a reminder to parents that they are liable in Tennessee for underage drinking–drinking by their children and underage guests that happens in the home. As a lawyer and a parent of two high school age young adults, I am always a little surprised when I hear parents say that they did not realize they are responsible for underage drinking at their homes.

Many parents think that they can provide a safe haven for young adults to experience alcohol responsibly. As one parent told me, “I don’t want my son driving after drinking a beer. And, it’s not like they are getting drunk.” That parents have turned a blind eye to the potential consequences concerning what could happen where beer and liquor are consumed is a problem. With every holiday season we have parties and arrests for drinking under age. When tragedy strikes in the form of an alcohol-related accident or fatality, parents need to know that they might bear significant responsibility. In Tennessee there are two kinds of potential consequences: criminal and civil. Criminally, parents can be held liable for the crime of contributing the delinquency of a minor where alcohol is served to minors with their consent or tacit approval (Class A misdemeanor). Perhaps less well known are the civil consequences. In a civil context, when you open your home up to the teenage beer-blast, you have exposed yourself to monetary damages for any foreseeable consequences that might follow. A parent is a social host, and he/she owes guests a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances. If the harm that follows (arrest, DUI, injury or fatality) is reasonably foreseeable, then the parent is liable.

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports about the reality of parents being held liable for underage drinking:
Eight states have specific “social host” laws that say parents can get in trouble if underage guests are drinking, even if no one gets hurt, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Some of those states allow parents to serve alcohol to their own children in some situations.)Sixteen other states have laws that hold Mom and Dad legally responsible for underage drinking under certain circumstances — for example, if a teen who drank at their home got into a car accident, NIH said. In other states, parents can get in trouble under more general liability laws.
Stephen Wallace, a senior adviser at Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, which used to be called Students Against Drunk Driving, said that with an increased awareness of the dangers of underage drinking, law enforcement authorities are increasingly relying on social host liability laws to go after parents.
While he acknowledged that teens are adept at finding ways to drink on the sly, he said he is all for anything that gets at the problem of underage drinking. He said he finds it troubling that the Burnetts said they saw no alcohol consumed at their party.
“Parents need to say to kids, ‘You shouldn’t be drinking at all and you certainly can’t do it here because we can be put in jail,'” Wallace said.
In Tennessee, laws are on the books that hold parents responsible for teen parties and drinking in their midst. Criminal and civil penalties may follow parents who willfully ignore the obvious: you are in charge.