In Narleski v. Gomes, et al., 495 N.J. Super. 377 (App. Div. 2019), the New Jersey Appellate Division established, prospectively, “that an adult who is under the legal drinking age shall owe injured parties a duty under the common law to desist from facilitating drinking by underage adults in his or her place of residence.”
In Narleski, the court was confronted with a tragic scenario involving the death of a young man in a drunk driving accident. On November 9, 2017, the decedent purchased a handle of vodka, three twenty-four ounce cans of beer, and a two-liter bottle of soda from a liquor store. He was accompanied by three other young men. All were over the age of eighteen, but under the legal drinking age of twenty-one. The liquor store – operated by Amboy Food Liquor and News, Inc. – did not check the identification of the decedent before the purchase.
The four young men drove to the house of Mark Zwierzynski (“Mark”), where he lived with his mother, Mercedes Apraez. The four friends hung out in Mark’s bedroom, drank the purchased alcohol, and played video games. Mark’s mother was not home when they arrived. Narleski invited Nicholas Gomes to come to the house and join in the drinking, and he arrived at about 9:00 p.m. Gomes consumed several drinks while there. Eventually, Mark’s mother arrived home, after picking up Mark’s daughter. Ms. Apraez testified that she did not know that the young men were drinking alcohol in her home, and did not allow her son to drink there.
At some point in time, Gomes left the house and drove Narleski home. Gomes lost control of the car, crashed into the center median, and Narleski was ejected from the vehicle and killed. Gomes’ blood alcohol content was .161, well above the .08 legal limit. The parents of Brandon Narleski sued the liquor store and Gomes, for negligence and violations of New Jersey’s “Dram Shop” Act. The liquor store then impleaded Mark and his parents into the case.
The third-party defendants moved for, and obtained, summary judgment. The motion judge had concluded that the third-party defendants lacked a legal duty to supervise the underage persons who had been drinking alcohol in their home, because those persons were legally adults, and because Mrs. Apraez did not make her home available for the purpose of underage drinking. The plaintiff’s claim against the liquor store was settled, reserving the right to appeal dismissal of the third-party action.
On appeal, the Appellate Division recognized New Jersey’s strong public policy of imposing liability on certain social hosts who serve alcohol to their guests. In Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538 (1984), New Jersey’s Supreme court held that “a host who serves liquor to an adult social guest, knowing both that the guest is intoxicated and will thereafter be operating a motor vehicle, is liable for injuries inflicted on a third party as a result of the [vehicle’s] negligent operation…by the adult guest when such negligence is caused by the intoxication.” New Jersey’s Legislature thereafter enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.5, et seq. the “Social Host Liability Statute.” This codified the common law rule stated in Kelly. The act, however, defined a “social host” as someone “who legally provides alcoholic beverages to another person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.” N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.5 (emphasis added). The Social Host Liability Statute therefore did not apply to the facts in the Narleski matter. The court also considered a quasi-criminal disorderly persons statute, and rejected its applicability to the conduct at hand.
The Appellate Division agreed with the motion judge “that, in the absence of a statutory directive or controlling case law that dictates otherwise, it would be inappropriate to impose civil liability upon Mark’s parents in the circumstances presented – where their adult son and his adult friends consumed alcohol in the confines of Mark’s bedroom without proof of the parents’ acquiescence or awareness.” The court noted that parents generally have no duty to supervise their adult offspring, but did not foreclose the possibility of a factual setting conceivably arising in the future in which a parent should have such responsibility.
As to Mark, the court determined that imposing liability upon him in this scenario seemed consistent with sound public policy. However, the court “stop[ped] short of imposing upon him a novel rule of liability that he might not have reasonably anticipated.” The court declined to impose this duty retroactively. Moving forward, however, the court established that “an adult who is under the legal drinking age shall owe a common law duty to injured parties to desist from facilitating the drinking of alcohol by underage adults in his place of residence, regardless of whether he owns, rents, or manages the premises.”
On October 10, 2019, the Supreme Court certified the appeal of this matter, and as such, it is anticipated that further legal developments in this arena will be forthcoming.