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What kind of problems can happen at a social event?

At any social event, whether it is in someone’s home or in a public place, there are a variety of potential hazards, both physical and legal. In situations involving alcohol, for example, you may face legal liability for allowing underage drinking, or if an intoxicated guest causes an injury. Depending on state and local laws, you may need an event permit. Bartenders that serve alcoholic beverages may need a special certification.

Problems that can arise at social events include the following:

  • Property damage: Large gatherings of people risk property damage. If you host the event in your home, you bear the risk yourself. If you use someone else’s home or rent a venue for your event, you could risk financial responsibility, or even legal liability, for damage to the event space.
  • Personal injuries: Accidents can happen at social gatherings with or without alcohol involved. For example, a guest could trip on a sound system cable and fall. As the host, you have an obligation to maintain reasonably safe premises for your guests, and warn them of potential hazards.
  • Coronavirus and other exposures: Public health measures intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus have included mask requirements, social distancing, and limits on large gatherings. If someone gets sick at or after your event, it could be challenging to prove with certainty that they caught the virus there. Failure to follow the public health recommendations at the time of the event, however, could work against you in a legal action.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: In addition to the danger that a drunk party guest will trip and fall, you could face liability for injuries suffered by others because of a guest’s excessive drinking. Many states have liquor liability laws that hold event hosts responsible for drunk driving accidents and other injuries caused by someone who is served alcohol at an event.

When do hosts want a Release of Liability?

In certain situations, you may want event guests to sign a Release of Liability before or upon arrival, provided they have a reasonable opportunity to read the release since it waives some legal rights.

Situations in which you might want a Release of Liability include:

  • Dangerous activities: If the event features activities that are more dangerous than one might normally expect at a social gathering, a waiver of liability could be prudent. Activities that do not seem out of the ordinary at a large social gathering include drinking, dancing, and socializing. While dancing can lead to injuries, it is not typically considered “dangerous.” Physical activities like rock climbing or other sports, on the other hand, can be dangerous for guests.
  • Impractical social distancing: Even if state laws or local ordinances do not impose requirements, it might be prudent for an event host to encourage social distancing, masks, and other safeguards while the coronavirus remains a public health risk. Some events, however, make social distancing all but impossible. If a gathering is on a boat, for example, there may not be enough space for everyone to remain 6 feet apart. A Release of Liability may be reasonable as long as guests know that they take on that risk.
  • Alcoholic beverage service: At any event where guests are served drinks containing alcohol, the event hosts may want some liability protection. Not all liabilities related to alcohol may be subject to waiver, depending on state and local laws.

What are dram shop laws?

Forty-three U.S. states have social host liability laws, also known as dram shop laws, that impose liability on social hosts, business owners, and others for injuries and damages related to alcohol service. These laws vary widely from state to state, but they often address drunk driving accidents and underage drinking.

A typical dram shop law may hold a social host liable for injuries to third parties if a drunken guest causes an accident. Suppose a party guest drinks too much and then drives away from the event. They cause an auto accident that injures another driver on the road. The person who served the alcohol can be held liable for the accident and the other driver’s injuries. Even if the event host did not personally serve alcohol to the drunk driver, they could be liable for the actions of bartenders and others at the event.

Social host liability insurance may offer a layer of protection if you serve alcohol at your event. You can take other steps to protect yourself, such as making sure your bartenders understand the local dram shop laws and do not serve anyone who appears intoxicated.

How can I protect myself from social host liability problems?

You have many options to protect yourself from liability for injuries and damages at a social event. Liability insurance is important, but it is far from the only form of protection. Some insurance providers may require additional actions instead of depending solely on insurance coverage. Other methods to protect yourself may include:

  • Release of Liability: You can make a Release of Liability to inform your guests of the risks or dangers and to obtain their signed waiver.
  • Know the law: Get familiar with what state laws and local ordinances require of you as an event host.
  • Go public: Consider hosting your event at a public place instead of your home. Public event venues often carry general liability insurance coverage that includes many common risks for large gatherings.
  • Hire professionals: Use a professional bartender who can keep an eye on how much people are drinking. Have them sign a Bartending Contract that makes it clear that they cannot serve anyone underage or who has had too much to drink.
  • Get everyone involved: Ask other people that you have hired for the event to help in preventing drunk driving. Your Valet Service Contract, for example, may include special instructions for what to do if someone who is visibly drunk wants to drive a car. Provide alternative resources, such as a taxi or rideshare service.
  • Watch the teens and kids: Do not allow underage drinking under any circumstances, and young children often require supervision.
  • Know when to end the party: Stop serving alcohol before the evening ends. Many cities and towns prohibit the sale of alcohol after midnight or 2 a.m. Make sure your bartenders and others follow the rules. You might include provisions in a Musical Performance Contract or DJ Contract that sets a specific time for the music to stop, which will help wind your party down.

To learn more about social host liability laws and your obligations as an event organizer or venue owner, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney today.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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