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Whether a defendant has a duty to be careful is a question of law, to be determined by reference to existing social values and customs and appropriate social policy. A court will recognize a social host's liability to a person injured by an intoxicated guest's negligent operation of a motor vehicle where a social host who knew or should have known that his quest was drunk, nevertheless gave him or permitted him to take an alcoholic drink and thereafter, because of his intoxication, the guest negligently operated a motor vehicle causing the third person's injury.
Plaintiffs Paul J. and Donna A. Cremins claimed that defendant John W. Clancy Jr., who was seventeen years old at the time of the incident, was negligent because while acting as a social host, defendant permitted his friend and classmate named Brian B. Jordan become intoxicated on beer knowing that the latter would operate his own automobile. Jordan subsequently caused an accident in which the plaintiffs were seriously injured. The defendant knew that it was illegal for his friend and the others to drink and that drinking impaired a person's ability to drive safely. The jury would have been warranted in finding that the defendant knew, or should have known, that his friend was intoxicated when the latter left the defendant's automobile to join the party at their friend’s residence. Plaintiffs then filed a negligence complaint against defendant as the social host. Following a jury trial, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of the defendant, and denied a motion for a new trial. The jury answered in the negative on the question whether the defendant acted with negligence as a social host. On appeal, the court, on its own motion, transferred the matter from the appellate court.
Was the defendant negligent in his conduct as a social host?
The court affirmed the judgment of the trial court in favor of the defendant. The court found that the defendant provided a setting and atmosphere, first in his home and later in his car, where the guest could drink. It was also found that the guest and the others helped themselves. The defendant considered the supply of beer to belong to him, the guest, and a third person together. The court ruled that in such circumstances, the defendant did not have the obligation, or the means, effectively to control the supply of beer and, therefore, stop the guest from drinking beer that was in large part the guests to consume. As such, in the absence of a right to exercise effective control, the defendant was not subject to a duty to act to protect the plaintiff injured parties. Also, the jury instructions were correctly declined because violation of a statute did not by itself establish a breach of duty. Accordingly, the judgment in favor of the defendant and the denial of the motion for new trial was affirmed.