Rogers v. Martin – Liability for Injury of Party Guest

As we head into the holiday season, many individuals and families will be hosting gatherings where they will invite loved ones, friends and acquaintances. Party hosts should be aware that when they invite people onto their property, they assume a degree of responsibility for the safety of those guests – in some cases even after they leave.

There are two primary avenues for this: General premises liability law and social host/ dram shop law. General premises liability holds that property owners/ those in charge of a property owe a duty of care to those who are welcomed there to ensure they are reasonably safe. Then there are social host liability/ dram shop laws. F.S. 768.125 holds that persons who sell or furnish alcohol to persons who are not of lawful drinking age or who are known to be habitually addicted to alcohol can be liable for damages caused by or resulting from that person’s intoxication. Most often, this occurs in the form of drunk driving accident, but it could be applied to other scenarios as well.

The recent case of Rogers v. Martin, recently before the Indiana Supreme Court, involved a party guest who was killed in a drunken brawl at the end of a house party. Questions arose about the owner’s responsibility for his safety, as well as her liability for allegedly “furnishing”alcohol to the other person involved in the fight.

According to court records, the estate of decedent sued the homeowner claiming she negligently caused decedent’s injuries by furnishing alcohol in violation of the state’s dram shop act and general premises liability law.

Police got involved in the early morning hours of May 9, 2010 when they discovered decedent dead on defendant’s front lawn.

Rewind to several hours earlier. Defendant her then-boyfriend (now husband) had planned to have this party and together purchased a keg of beer for the occasion. They invited friends, family and co-workers and about 50 people altogether showed up, starting at around 6 p.m. the night before. Decedent was the paramour of her boyfriend’s co-worker.

For the most part, these guests served themselves alcohol from the keg, though defendant did at one point bring a pitcher to a group of the men playing poker in the basement. Throughout the night, defendant’s boyfriend consumed numerous drinks, including liquor shots. Defendant didn’t monitor his drinking, though she was aware he was on probation for driving drunk.

Around 2 a.m., about 10 guests remained as the party wined down. Defendant went to bed. The last of the guests were leaving at around 3:30 a.m. and defendant’s boyfriend went into the basement to tell decedent and his boyfriend it was time to go. A fistfight broke out among the three of them. Defendant was awakened by her boyfriend who told her the two other men had attacked him and he fought back and he needed her help to get them to leave. She acquiesced and went to the basement, where she saw decedent on the floor, motionless with his eyes closed. He had blood on his face, but it had been confirmed he was breathing. Defendant did not call police or 911 and assumed he’d passed out from drinking too much. She did tell decedent’s boyfriend if he was concerned he should take him to a hospital.

She went back to her room while the two other men carried decedent up the stairs. Defendant went back to bed.

Soon after, police arrived and found decedent dead in the front yard. Defendant’s boyfriend was arrested for drinking alcohol (a violation of his probation). However, no charges were ever filed with relation to the death.

Decedent’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against defendant. A trial court judge concluded defendant wasn’t negligent because she didn’t “furnish” alcohol to her boyfriend – was an adult and he’d paid half for it, just as she did. Further, the state’s social host liability law didn’t recognize a social’s host’s duty to render aid to a guest.

The appeals court reversed, finding summary judgment favoring defendant was improper because defendant did have a duty to render aid as a social host and questions of fact remained as to whether she did so, and there was also a question of fact as to whether she “furnished” her boyfriend with the beer.

The state supreme court then affirmed in part/ reversed in part. The court held that while the summary judgment was appropriate with regard to the alleged dram shop violation, it was improper as to general premises liability claim. Specifically, there remained a question of fact as to whether defendant breached her landowner-invitee duty to exercise reasonable care toward her guest (decedent) while he was on the premises. Even more to the point, while she wasn’t responsible to prevent the fistfight, an argument could be made that she owed a duty to ensure he received prompt medical care once she discovered his injuries.

The matter was remanded back to trial court for further proceedings.

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Additional Resources:

Rogers v. Martin, Oct. 26, 2016, Indiana Supreme Court