Having returned from an environment where alcohol is readily available and consumption is often tolerated, many college-age students continue to consume alcohol upon their return home. While not “minors” in many respects under the law, adults ages 18 through 20 are nonetheless prohibited from purchasing or consuming alcohol. What is a homeowner to do then when confronted with a situation where their “minor” son or daughter decides to drink or host a party where other similarly aged individuals are drinking? What is a homeowner’s potential liability if someone is injured or even dies after drinking? Michigan law is both clear cut and opaque, but homeowners should nonetheless be aware of a few salient facts.
Michigan law is absolutely clear that an adult over the age of 21 shall not sell or “furnish” alcohol to a minor. See MCL 436.1701. Violation of the statutory prohibition against selling or furnishing alcohol to a minor could subject a homeowner to criminal penalties, as well as potentially significant civil liability. Selling alcohol to a minor is easily explained, but what is contemplated by “furnishing” alcohol to a minor? Moreover, is a homeowner’s duty different when the “minor” is actually over the age of 18, but younger than the actual drinking age?
Furnishing alcohol under Michigan law is somewhat of nebulous concept, with courts most commonly focusing on the amount of control the homeowner has over the supply of the alcohol and whether the homeowner purchased the alcohol. Consequently, it would be particularly inadvisable to purchase alcohol and knowingly let those persons under the age of 21 consume the alcohol. Similarly, hosting a party for persons over the age of 21, but failing to take adequate precautionary measures to prevent minors from drinking could also result in civil liability for resulting injuries.
Fortunately, Michigan law lessens a homeowner’s duty when the “minor” is over the age of 18 and the homeowner’s involvement in procuring the alcohol or participating in the consumption of alcohol is limited. As set-forth by the court in Reinhart v Dolezel, 147 Mich App 149, 156; 383 NW2d 148 (1985),
A person who is 18 years of age is deemed to be an adult of legal age for all purposes whatsoever and shall have the same duties, liabilities, responsibilities, rights and legal capacity as persons heretofore acquired at 21 years of age, notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary. These people were not minors; they were adults who were not old enough to drink alcoholic beverages legally. Any duty the parents had to supervise their child’s conduct ended when that child became an adult. To make homeowners civilly liable for illegal activity being conducted by adults in their home, of which the homeowners have no part, would be to break new ground in Michigan jurisprudence. The problem of teenagers who drink and drive is a serious one. But we know of no jurisdiction which imposes a duty upon homeowners to stop adults from illegally drinking in their home. As plaintiff concedes, courts have extended liability to social hosts, based either on statute or common law, only where the defendant host actively furnished or served the alcohol.
Based on the holding from Reinhart and similar cases, liability for resulting injuries is unlikely to attach to a homeowner when their college age son or daughter, without their knowledge, drinks alcohol or otherwise hosts a party where alcohol is provided to similarly aged persons. Even if present, a homeowner may be able to avoid civil liability so long as the alcohol wasn’t provided by the homeowner and the homeowner was unaware that drinking had occurred.
Caveats abound, however, and walking the fine line between “furnishing” alcohol and something less should be avoided at all costs. The risks of permitting underage drinking, even for college age “minors,” are great, including both civil and criminal liability. With proper precautions and frank discussions with your son or daughter, however, the chances of liability attaching for subsequent injuries can be minimized.