Richard Campbell drives home social hosts’ responsibility

Issue May 2010

by Dennis Garrigan

For MBA Vice President Richard P. Campbell, it all began in the early 1980s when he was asked to represent a Roman Catholic nun, Ruth Langemann, who sustained catastrophic injuries when she was struck by an impaired teenage driver who had just left an unsupervised house party.

The expansion of liability in this case and others like it helped Campbell and his firm to establish social host liability in common law - which extends legal responsibility for the consumption of alcohol beyond the person who consumes it to those who furnish it. The intoxicated guest not only remains liable to persons injured as a result of his actions, but now shares direct liability with the host.

Following the death in 2003 of 16-year-old Trista Zinck and injury of 17-year-old Neil Bornstein caused by a teenager who was driving drunk, Campbell was asked to make a presentation to help the Newburyport community deal with the tragedy, which involved a social host. Since that time, Campbell has made close to 150 presentations on behalf of legal, school, parent and civic groups across the region to emphasize that anyone - however well-intentioned - who enables an impaired driver to get behind the wheel of a car becomes just as liable as the driver.

"In the 1960s and '70s, people from all walks of life would routinely consume alcohol and never think twice about getting behind the wheel of a car," said Campbell, founder of Campbell, Campbell, Edwards & Conroy in Boston. "Today there is no hesitation to punish individuals who drive under the influence of alcohol and ultimately injure or kill someone."

Twice last month, North Andover police charged parents with allowing illegal underage drinking on their properties.

When addressing community groups, Campbell tells audiences that we are in the watershed stages of punishing social hosts who allow their guests to drink and drive. In fact, social hosts may also be liable for injuries suffered by the intoxicated guest. Imposing liability on the host reflects the modern view that the provider of alcohol has an obligation to the public to reduce risky behavior by furnishing alcohol safely and responsibly.

Using high-profile cases in which parents, adults and friends in Massachusetts have furnished alcohol that led to injury or death, Campbell illustrates the stark reality surrounding the decisions made by social hosts.

"As a society, we are becoming less and less tolerant of the kind of behavior where parents and friends say, 'I thought I was doing them a favor, I thought I was trying to protect them,' I didn't know they were going to do this,'" said Campbell. "We as a society are saying that's not good enough. If someone gets hurt or killed in these circumstances, we are ever more willing to hold these people responsible."

In the Massachusetts criminal statute, underage persons are now held criminally responsible if they allow their friends or other underage individuals to possess alcohol under their control. Campbell tells community groups that everyone needs to consider the serious ramifications of decisions made concerning people under their charge.