Just over a year ago, MKCI analyzed a decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division in the matter of Narleski v. Gomes. In that case, the court considered whether an “underage” adult – someone over the age of eighteen, but under the legal drinking age of twenty-one – owed a duty as a social host to prevent underage guests in their homes from becoming intoxicated, and subsequently operating their motor vehicle. Prior to that decision, New Jersey’s statutes and case law had only imposed such a duty on adults twenty-one and older. In a lengthy precedential ruling, the Appellate Division determined that, prospectively, “underage” adults had a duty to prohibit the use of their homes as a “haven” for underage drinking, and that liability could be imposed prospectively on “underage” adults who violated that duty. However, the underage adult at issue in this litigation – third-party defendant, Mark Zwierzynski – was not held to that duty.
Recently on appeal, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed. The Court noted that nineteen-year-old Zwierzynski had permitted underage adult friends to bring alcoholic beverages to his home, and become intoxicated. Two of those friends left, and in a subsequent motor vehicle accident, nineteen-year-old Brandon Narleski was tragically killed.
The Court held that “an underage adult defendant may be held civilly liable to a third-party drunk driving victim if the defendant facilitated the use of alcohol by making his home available as a venue for underage drinking … if the guest causing the crash became visibly intoxicated in the defendant’s home; and if it was reasonably foreseeable that the visibly intoxicated guest would leave the residence to operate a motor vehicle and cause injury to another.”
The Court considered several factors in deciding whether a common law duty should be imposed upon Zwierzynski – those factors found in the seminal decision of Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors, 132 N.J. 426 (1993). In this case, Zwierzynski controlled access to his home, and provided “secure confines” for others to engage in an illicit activity – the illegal consumption of alcohol by underage adults. The Court found it of no moment that Zwierzynski did not, himself, provide the alcohol – he “supplied the cups,” and that was sufficient. The nature of the attendant risk, the Court held, was of a significant public health concern – with thousands of drunk driving accidents annually. As to Zwierzynski’s ability and opportunity to exercise care, the Court noted that Zwierzynski had an opportunity to prevent his guests from becoming visibly intoxicated, and could have taken steps to have the impaired guest driven home or kept him on the premises – “[t]he social host is not powerless to deny his residence as a venue for uncontrolled drinking or to take measures to safeguard an impaired guest from the danger he presents to himself and others.” Lastly, as to the public interest in the proposed duty, the Court held that it was clear that tort law exists as a deterrent for irresponsible conduct; and to provide compensation to the innocent victim of another person’s negligence. Finding all of these factors in favor of imposing a duty on the “underage” social host, the Court imposed a retroactive and prospective duty.