Rogers v. Martin – Liability for Death of Party Guest

No one throws a party with the intention of a guest being seriously injured or killed. But as we head into the holiday season, it’s important to consider the ways in which a social host can be liable for injuries to those in attendance. beers

The two most common types of liability in these situations will stem from one of two things:

  • Premises liability (a failure to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition and exercise reasonable care to protect guests); or
  • Social host/dram shop liability (furnishing alcohol to minors or those who are already extremely intoxicated).

In the recent case of Rogers v. Martin, the Indiana Supreme Court was asked to consider whether a party host could be liable after a fight broke out, and a party guest ended up dead on her front lawn.

According to court records, the party planning had been in the works for weeks. The defendant and her boyfriend (now her husband) ordered a keg of beer for the event. The plaintiff was the homeowner, but her boyfriend often stayed with her, and the two shared some household expenses at the time of this incident.

Guests began to arrive at around 6 p.m., and approximately 50 people attended. These included friends, family members, co-workers, and spouses/significant others – all adults. For the most part, guests helped themselves to beer from the keg. A few brought their own alcoholic beverages. At one point, the defendant served a pitcher of beer from the keg to her boyfriend and several others who were playing poker downstairs. It should be noted the defendant’s boyfriend was on probation for driving under the influence and was not supposed to be drinking at all. The defendant knew this but didn’t stop him from drinking or monitor his alcohol intake (not that it was her responsibility to do so).

As the party began to wind down, the defendant told her boyfriend she was going to bed. He stayed up and continued to drink, as did some others. At around 2:30 a.m., the last of the guests were leaving, and the boyfriend went to the basement to tell a co-worker and his boyfriend it was time to go. For some reason, a scuffle broke out between the boyfriend and his co-worker’s significant other. The co-worker’s boyfriend ended up unconscious on the basement floor.

The defendant’s boyfriend roused her and asked if she would help him get the last of the guests to leave. She went to the basement to see a man on the floor, unconscious. She did not render aid. She did tell her boyfriend’s co-worker that if he was concerned, he should take his boyfriend to the hospital. They carried the man outside to the front lawn, and the defendant went back to bed.

A short time later, the police were called. They arrived to find the man dead.

The defendant’s boyfriend was initially arrested, but prosecutors ultimately did not press charges.

The decedent’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her for social host/dram shop liability (for negligently furnishing alcohol to her boyfriend, who caused the decedent’s fatal injuries) and for a failure to use reasonable care to protect her guest while he was on her property.

Although the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant on both counts, the state supreme court reversed in part. It affirmed with regard to dram shop liability because the defendant did not “furnish” her boyfriend with alcohol. They jointly paid for it, and he mostly served himself (with the exception of that one pitcher). However, there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the defendant used reasonable care in protecting her guest. Although she was not expected to have foreseen the fistfight, there was evidence she failed to use reasonable care by not calling for help once she discovered her guest unconscious on the basement floor.

On this issue, the court remanded for trial.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Rogers v. Martin, Oct. 26, 2016, Indiana Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Moore v. Mercer – Car Accident Liability When Plaintiff Lacks Health Insurance, Nov. 2, 2016, Charlotte Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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