Social Host Criminal and Civil Liability for Serving Alcohol to Underage Guests in Maryland

by | Feb 27, 2024 | Firm News | 0 comments

Stewart Sutton has represented parents of teenagers and young adults in wrongful death cases arising from social host liability in Maryland.  When an adult serves alcohol to a teenager or young adult under the age of 21, there is a heightened risk that the impaired or intoxicated youth will be involved in a fatal car crash.  The death of the driver, passenger, or third party in a car crash caused by an intoxicated underage teenager or young adult is not an accident, because the tragedy was both foreseeable and preventable. 


The legal age to drink alcohol in Maryland is twenty-one.   It is a criminal act for an adult to furnish alcohol for consumption to someone that the adult knows is under the age of 21.  See Criminal Law § 10-117.  The adult is subject to a criminal fine of $2,500 for a first offense and $5,000 for a second offense.  See Criminal Law § 10-121(b). 

If the underage drinker injures or kills himself or another person while operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or impaired by alcohol and the adult knew or should have known that the underage person would operate a motor vehicle, then the adult who furnished the alcohol is subject to imprisonment for up to 1 year and a $5,000 fine.  See Criminal Law §§ 10-117(d) and 10-121(c).


The Maryland Supreme Court in the landmark case of Kirakos v. Phillips, 448 Md. 440 (2016) imposed social host liability on adults who furnish alcohol to underage persons in two cases that were consolidated for appellate purposes.  The Court relied upon two independent legal doctrines to establish social host liability: (1) a violation of Criminal Law § 10-117(b) for permitting underage drinking on an owner’s or tenant’s property; or (2) the application of common law tort principles.  Two

In the first case, Steven Dankos, who was 17-years old, became intoxicated at a party at Linda Stapf’s home.  Although Linda Stapf knew that Steven Dankos was under 21, she permitted him to drink at her home along with other party goers.

Steven  Dankos left the party while still intoxicated and rode in the bed of David Erdman’s pickup truck.  David Erdman, who was 22 years old, was another intoxicated partygoer.  Erdman crashed his pickup truck shortly after leaving Stapf’s home and Dankos was killed.                                                     

The Maryland Supreme Court held that Linda Stapf’s violation of Criminal Code § 10-117(b) is evidence of negligence for having knowingly served alcohol to someone under the age of 21, because the violation of the statute was design to protect a specific class of persons: “We view CR § 10-117(b) as a recognition by the General Assembly, based on convincing evidence, that children under 21 are often less able to make responsible decisions regarding the consumption of alcohol and, as a result, are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a social, peer-pressured setting.  It therefore carved out that specific class for special protection against adult social hosts who knowingly and willfully allow consumption of alcoholic beverages on their property”.  Id. at p. 468.  

The Supreme Court also ruled that the wrongful death complaint had adequately pled that Steven Dankos’ death in the car crash was a direct, proximate result of Linda Stapf’s actions.  Id. at 465-66.  In this regard, the Complaint alleged that Dankos’ intoxication impaired his ability to make a reasonable decision about when and how to leave the party, thereby placing himself at high risk by riding in the bed of a pickup truck driven by intoxicated adult driver.  Id.         

In the second case, an adult (Brandon Phillips) furnished alcohol to an underage guest (Shetmiyah Robinson) and then allowed the impaired guest to drive away.  About an hour later, the underage guest (Robinson), who was still under the influence of alcohol, lost control of his vehicle and struck a female pedestrian (Manal Kirakos), who had been walking her dogs on the sidewalk.  The Maryland Supreme Court applied the following traditional common law tort principles in determining that the adult (Phillips) owed a legal duty to the pedestrian (Kirakos), who had been struck by the underage drinker (Robinson):

  1. The foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff;
  2. The degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury;
  3. The closeness of the connection between the defendant’s  conduct and the injury suffered;
  4. The moral blame attached to defendant’s conduct;
  5. The policy of preventing future harm;
  6. The extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise reasonable care with resulting liability for reach, and 
  7. The availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.

Id. at pp. 487 to 492. 

The result was that the Maryland Supreme Court held that social host liability can be established whenever an adult provides alcohol to an underage person who the adult knows will drive a motor vehicle in an impaired state.  The other implication is that social host liability can be imposed upon a defendant who was neither the owner or tenant of the property where the underage drinking occurred.   See Criminal Law § 10-117(a & d).

The Supreme Court also made two other profound rulings.  First, “[Co]ntributory negligence is not a defense in an action by a protected class member against a social host defendant”.  Id at p. 469.

Secondly, an underage person who is provided alcohol by an adult cannot be found to have assumed the risk of any resulting harm caused by the consumption of alcohol or by placing herself in a dangerous situation due to the impaired judgment caused by the consumption of alcohol: “We view CR § 10–117(b) as a recognition by the General Assembly, based on convincing evidence, that children under 21 are often less able to make responsible decisions regarding the consumption of alcohol and, as a result, are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a social, peer-pressured setting”. Id. at p. 468.


There are some parents who believe that they are somehow protecting their children and their children’s friends by allowing them to drink alcohol at their home.  These parents erroneously believe that they can prevent excessive drinking by teenagers or young adults guests at their homes and/or prevent the underage persons from driving away in an intoxicated or impaired state. 

The truth is that homeowners lack the ability to monitor the alcohol intake of a group of underage persons and to determine whether any particular underage drinker is intoxicated (blood alcohol concentration or BAC greater than .08) or impaired by alcohol (BAC greater than .07).   Unless the adult takes away the car keys from the underage person, the adult cannot stop an intoxicated or impaired underage guest from driving away.

The adult social hosts are likely to face incontrovertible evidence of furnishing alcohol to guests under the age of 21, because teenagers and young adults document their drinking by taking and sharing photographs and videos of their consumption of alcohol and resulting intoxication.    

Teenagers who drink and drive place themselves, their passengers, and others at great risk.   According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers.  About a quarter of fatal crashes involve an underage drinking driver.  In 2021, 27% of young drivers (age 15 to 20) who were killed in car crashes had blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) of .01 g/dl or greater.

           Even low BAC levels impair a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle in a safe manner.  See the NHTSA chart below:


                                          The Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration

.02 Some loss of judgment; relaxation, slight body warmth, altered mood Decline in visual functions (rapid tracking of a moving target), decline in ability to perform two tasks at the same time (divided attention)
.05 Exaggerated behavior, may have loss of small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes), impaired judgment, usually good feeling, lowered alertness, release of inhibition Reduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, reduced response to emergency driving situations
.08 Muscle coordination becomes poor (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing), harder to detect danger; judgment, self-control, reasoning, and memory are impaired Concentration, short-term memory loss, speed control, reduced information processing capability (e.g., signal detection, visual search), impaired perception
.10 Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, slurred speech, poor coordination, and slowed thinking Reduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
.15 Far less muscle control than normal, vomiting may occur (unless this level is reached slowly or a person has developed a tolerance for alcohol), major loss of balance Substantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task, and in necessary visual and auditory information processing



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