Adults can be sued for underage drinking on their property - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Adults can be sued for underage drinking on their property

Abigail Nickell Abigail Nickell
Blake Oshiro Blake Oshiro
Marcus Sierra Marcus Sierra
Paul Cunney Paul Cunney
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Hawai'i's social host liability law is in the spotlight after a deadly crash in Makaha involving underage teens who were allegedly drinking at a home beforehand. Not only is it illegal to give alcohol to minors, but here in Hawai'i – adults can be sued for giving alcohol to anyone under 21 and they in turn, damage property or hurt or kill someone.

The law was passed in 2003 to assign responsibility to adults who promote underage drinking.  MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was one of the bill's biggest proponents.  According to Executive Director Abigail Nickell, at least 20% of Hawaii's teens are getting alcohol from their parents, but an even larger percentage get it from their friends' parents.

"We really feel like this is endangering children and our communities as a whole, so absolutely there need to be repercussions," explained Nickell.

Previous laws only prohibited adults from buying alcohol for minors -- but the social host liability law takes it one step further.  Former State Representative Blake Oshiro co-authored the House version of the bill.

"The intent is actually to hold adults responsible and ultimately liable if there is any injury and/or damage that occurs due to the minor's underage drinking," said Oshiro.

The bill was initially written to hold adults responsible if they knowingly provided alcohol to minors.  The law is changing effective July 1, 2013 and will be strengthened by lowering the standards for criminal prosecution to just "recklessly".

"They can't now just assert that they are ignorant of it and they didn't know and therefore can't be criminally charged.  Now the standard is recklessness – so if there's a substantial and justifiable risk that the minors could consume alcohol during that party and it would've been reasonable or common sense for them to do so – then the homeowner, or the person who controls the premises can be held criminally liable," explained criminal defense attorney Marcus Sierra.

As it is currently, there is a possible defense if adults can prove they couldn't have prohibited or prevented the minor from consuming alcohol, because they didn't know about it.  Once the law is amended, legal experts say adults will have the burden of proving they were not involved in the underage drinking or if they took reasonable steps showing they didn't allow it.

"If they're over 21 years old and they serve to people who are under 21 and that person commits a tortuous act and a person gets hurt or killed, then the homeowner is responsible," explained criminal and DUI attorney Paul Cunney.   "And the homeowner's policy that he might have at his house is not going to cover any of those medical bills for anybody that gets hurt as a result of drinking at his house."

Along with facing financial responsibility for anything that may happen – it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000 dollars.

"They cannot be doing this for their own kids, for their neighbors' kids, for their friends – under any circumstances, it's just not okay," said Nickell.

Ultimately, experts say adults need to be  refuse to supply alcohol to anyone under 21 in their home or on their property, and they need to make sure it's not brought into their home or on their property either.

"The key here is to be careful and to be vigilant and to use preventative measures so that you don't end up in this situation," said Sierra.

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