Pennsylvania's Social Host Laws: A Quick Overview of How They Affect You During the Summer Party Season

Summer is in full swing and 4th of July weekend is right around the corner.  Your summer may have already been filled with parties, picnics, bonfires, and other get togethers, or you may just be kicking off your outdoor season this weekend.  Either way, when you are the host, it is important to know how Pennsylvania’s social host laws affect you.

Social host laws deal with a homeowner’s, or other host’s, responsibility to his or her guests relative to the service of alcoholic beverages.  Pennsylvania is notorious for having very strict rules and regulations related to the sale and provision of alcohol to the public.  However, those laws, in general, only applied to establishments licensed by the Commonwealth to sell alcohol for a commercial purpose.  The issuance of a liquor license to a bar, restaurant, beer distributor, or other vendor carries with it the restrictions set forth in the Pennsylvania Liquor Code,  Pennsylvania also recognizes civil liability on the part of licensed establishments stemming from certain types of injuries suffered as a result of someone consuming alcohol.

For example, if you are the victim of a drunk driver and can prove that the driver was served at a bar in violation of the Liquor Code, you may have a civil claim against the bar.  The bar may be responsible to compensate you for the injuries you suffered as a result of the drunk driver.  The law places the responsibility to insure that bar patrons are not served while they are visibly intoxicated on the bar as a licensed serving establishment.  The drunk driver remains responsible for his actions, but the bar may share in that responsibility.

Providing alcohol at a private party, however, is a different matter.  If you host a party at your house, and provide alcohol for your guests’ consumption, you are treated differently under the law than a bar or other licensed establishment.  Pennsylvania law shields social hosts from civil liability stemming from alcohol-related incidents, provided that the person consuming the alcohol is of legal drinking age.  In the private setting, Pennsylvania law places the burden on the person consuming the alcohol to know their limits and act accordingly.

For example, you have a party at your house and a friend of yours becomes severely intoxicated.  He elects to drive home, causing an car accident that injures several people. You, as the host, are not responsible for the result of your friend’s intoxication unless your friend is under the age of 21.  Although you may have a self-imposed moral responsibility, Pennsylvania law does not place responsibility on you for the collision.

If you allow minors to drink, however, you may be subject not only to civil liability for injuries resulting from the minor’s intoxication, you may also be criminally sanctioned through fines or other punishment.  Even if you do not know that minors are drinking at your event, you may still be subject to liability.  You have a duty as a host to actively prevent minors from gaining access to alcohol while on your premises.  If you’re providing alcohol for a party where minors are in attendance, make sure you take whatever additional measures you can take to keep minors away from the alcohol.  Move the alcohol to a location away from other drinks where you can monitor access to it.  Post a sign near the alcohol saying minors are not permitted to drink.  Keep an eye on anyone you suspect might try to drink alcohol underage.  If you still have concerns that minors will drink alcohol at your event, you can choose to have a dry event or ask guests to bring whatever alcohol they would like for themselves.

Finally, providing alcohol to minors for a party is something no one should ever do. The potential consequences, both civil and criminal, can be severe in the event an injury occurs. More importantly, why would you want to risk being the person who provided the alcohol that factored in to causing an injury?

You can host a party without fear of legal consequences, provided you know the law and you take the necessary precautions if minors are attending your party.

Erin Rudert is an attorney with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, personal injury, litigation, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com.

More by | Erin Rudert Erin Rudert , Law.com Contributor
LOAD MORE