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Missouri Law Holds Party Hosts Accountable For Underage Drinking

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A young girl was killed on a Halloween night by an underage drunk driver. Now, the adult party host who provided alcohol may also be held accountable.

Jackson County, Missouri prosecutors charged adult party-host with second-degree manslaughter for her role in supplying liquor to a minor, and allowing him to drive off from the party while intoxicated.

From the Kansas City Star:

[A]uthorities said in court records that [the Adult] hosted a Halloween party at her residence that [the Minor] attended. She also is accused of buying alcohol with money given to her by teens at the party. [The Adult] later made a pitcher of pineapple juice and rum.

[The Adult] knew the teens were underage and she also knew that [the Minor] was intoxicated when he left her home. But she failed to call police, according to court records.

After drinking at the party and getting into a fight, the Minor drove off. He ended up driving the wrong way down a divided highway and struck head-on the vehicle in which a young girl was a passenger. She died in the collision.

In addition to criminal charges, the Adult party-host may be responsible for damages stemming from the young girl's wrongful death. While Missouri has historically protected and insulated "social hosts" from liability when an intoxicated guest injures another person, the Missouri legislature amended R.S. Mo. 311.310 in 2005 to prohibit "adults from hosting 'open house' parties or knowingly allowing under aged drinking" and making such conduct a class B misdemeanor. In extending this liability, Missouri joined 24 other states that have adopted some form of social host ordinances that criminalize the hosting of underage drinking parties.

At least one case indicates this new law opens the door for civil liability as well. Coons v. Berry, 304 S.W.3d 215, 222-23 (Mo. App. 2009) found that Missouri does recognize civil causes of action based on violations of criminal law:

Missouri, of course, does recognize that a cause of action for civil damages may be based upon an act which is violative of a criminal statute or a penal municipal ordinance.

Coons, however, left the question open because the incident at issue in that case occurred almost two years before section 311.310.2 took effect and the Missouri Constitution prohibits the retrospective application of laws enacted by the legislature. The Court was not permitted to apply the new law to the Coons' wrongful death claim. However, the Court expressly left open the possibility of civil penalties for violation of the new law:

Since this conclusion is dispositive of this case, we leave to another day the determination whether a civil claim may be based on a violation of section 311.310.2.

Adults should be held responsible — under both criminal and civil law — if they supply liquor to underage kids and someone is hurt or killed. Let's hope Missouri courts agree.

(c) Copyright 2012 Brett A. Emison

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