Is Rhode Island Behind the Times in Imposing Social Host Liability

Yesterday I wrote a post about a Virginia Supreme Court decision imposing liability on the hosts of a sleepover following a fatal auto accident. The parents of the victim had requested that their daughter not be allowed to ride in any car with teenage boys, and the Court imposed liability on the hosts for failing to follow through with that instruction and for failing to adequately care for their guest.

I began thinking that the Rhode Island Supreme Court would almost definitely deny such a claim. Rhode Island is among the States which do not recognize social host liability. Ferreira v. Strack, 652 A.2d 965, Willis v. Omar, 954 A.2d 126. Social host liability laws hold hosts and homeowners responsible for injuries sustained by a third party as a result of their actions. For example, if a homeowner throws a party in which a person becomes severely intoxicated and later kills a person in a car accident, the homeowner would be responsible for the role they played. It is dram shop liability on the homeowner.

Rhode Island, however, fails to recognize this liability because the Supreme Court does not believe that the host owes a duty to an unrelated third party. Rhode Island will only impose social host liability if the homeowner allows underage drinkers to become intoxicated or provides alcohol to minors which later results in a tragic accident. This law is relatively recent and is a product of the legislature. The Supreme Court has often stated that it defers to the legislature in establishing new causes of action. Therefore, social host liability will never be imposed in RI unless the legislature drafts such a statute.

I realize the Virginia case does not compare factually to the long line of RI cases denying social host liability, but I can only project that the RI Supreme Court, faced with a similar case, would reject this theory of liability.