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Reversing a lower court’s ruling, the Texas Supreme Court held on Nov. 8 that a teen-age host cannot be held liable because alcohol was available to party guests younger than 18. But Chief Justice Tom Phillips said in a concurring opinion that the court’s reasoning in Reeder v. Daniel is “too broad” and suggested that the issue be revisited in a case involving adults who serve alcohol to minors. “There are sound policy reasons for holding adult social hosts liable for providing alcohol to minors. Texas law often treats children differently than adults,” Phillips said in the concurring opinion in which he was joined by Justices Deborah Hankinson and Harriet O’Neill. On Nov. 15, the court showed its disinterest in considering a case that involves the liability of adult social hosts who make alcohol available to minors by refusing to consider Dorris v. Price, et al. In that case, a teen-ager allegedly drank beer available to adults at a Fourth of July party in Montgomery County and was involved in a fatal accident after he left the party. The majority said it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether social hosts can be held civilly liable in such cases. According to the court’s opinion, written by Justice Craig Enoch, the Legislature has not expressly created a civil cause of action against social hosts who violate �106.06 of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code. The statute makes it a Class B misdemeanor to make alcoholic beverages available to a minor. Twice before, the state’s highest civil court has deferred to the Legislature and declined to recognize a cause of action for social-host liability. In 1993, the court held in Graff v. Beard that a party-giver could not be held liable for serving intoxicated adult guests. The court’s 1997 ruling in Smith v. Merritt held there is no cause of action for serving alcohol to guests 18 to 20 years of age. “They’ve pretty much completed the circle,” says Port Arthur, Texas, solo Nathan Reynolds Jr., who represents plaintiff Andrew Daniel in Reeder. “A social host cannot be held liable for serving intoxicating drinks to anyone.” Reynolds says he “cannot fathom” people being able to serve alcohol to children and not having to accept responsibility for that action. He says he probably will file a motion for rehearing. But Ernest “Butch” Boyd, a Beaumont, Texas, attorney who represents defendant Tyler Reeder, says the Legislature had an opportunity to provide a civil cause of action against social hosts when it enacted the Dram Shop Act in 1987 but didn’t do it. A legislative conference committee deleted a social-host liability provision from the bill. “Our argument was the court shouldn’t go where the Legislature chose not to go,” says Boyd, a shareholder in Mehaffy & Weber in Beaumont. Jonathan Allen, a Mehaffy & Weber senior associate who also represents Reeder, says the supreme court may be asking the Legislature for guidance through the opinion. “They’ve indicated to the Legislature, if you want to address this political issue, you’re the ones who have to do it,” Allen says. 200 CHAPTERS Enoch noted in the majority opinion that Reeder was 17 years old when he hosted a party at his home in Beaumont when his parents were out of town. Another 17-year-old brought beer to the party and drank at least 12 of the beers before he hit Andrew Paul Daniel in the face, causing serious injury, the opinion said. According to the opinion, Daniel sued the teen-ager who struck him but subsequently settled that suit. He also sued Reeder and his parents for making the alcohol “available” to his assailant, the court said in the opinion. Judge Milton Shuffield of the 136th District Court in Beaumont granted summary judgment to the Reeders on the ground that Texas doesn’t recognize social-host civil liability. In a 2-1 decision, Beaumont’s 9th Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment for Tyler Reeder. Justice Don Burgess, author of the opinion, and former Justice Earl Stover concluded that it is negligence per se to violate the statutory prohibition against making alcohol available to minors and that a fact issue existed as to whether Reeder had done that. Chief Justice Ronald Walker dissented. The supreme court reversed the appeals court decision, noting that the Legislature has written more than 200 chapters in the Alcoholic Beverage Code without creating liability for those who host parties. Dorris, which involves a traffic death, raised the issue of the liability of adults who hosted a party at which minors allegedly obtained beer. A brief filed by W. Scott Golemon, who represents the family of the wreck victim, said Izetta Dorris was killed in 1994 when his car was struck by a vehicle driven by the 16-year-old who had left the Price party. The brief alleged that the teen was legally intoxicated after obtaining beer that was available to him and other minors at the party. According to the family’s brief, the 16-year-old testified that he drank five or six beers while at the party and that two or three of them were obtained from a cement watering trough filled with beer for the party guests. The plaintiffs alleged that the party hosts were negligent and grossly negligent in making alcoholic beverages available to minors and in failing to supervise and control the conduct of the minors. Judge Olen Underwood of the 284th District Court in Montgomery, Texas, granted summary judgment for Price, and the ruling was upheld by Eastland, Texas’ 11th Court of Appeals. Golemon says he did not expect the supreme court to look favorably at Dorris in light of its decision in Reeder. “I don’t see any positive writing on the wall,” he says. In the brief for the Dorris family, Golemon alleges that beer was easily attainable for minors attending the Prices’ party. Golemon says the Reeder ruling indicates that adults can allow a minor to drink on their property — even though it’s against the law — and drive off in a car, and the adults face no liability. If a driver is injured or killed by a minor who drank alcohol before driving, all that can be recovered is $20,000 from the minor’s liability policy, he says. “That’s not a remedy; that’s an insult,” Golemon says. STATUTORY EXCEPTION Randall Owens, a partner in Houston’s Golden & Owens and the attorney for the owner of the land where the party was held, says recognizing a civil cause of action for violating the �106.06 prohibition against making alcohol available to persons under 18 would create “all kinds of problems.” The statute provides an exception for parents and guardians, who can allow their minor children to drink in their presence, he says. Anybody could be held liable except a parent or guardian, who could provide drinks “willy-nilly” to their children without facing liability, Owens says, adding, “That doesn’t make sense.” Owens says the court should leave such matters to the Legislature, which deals regularly with bills regulating alcohol. “Decisions about fitting laws together in this area are a lot more complicated than the court can do,” he says.

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