Echoes of a tragedy resound in Illinois’ legislature and Supreme Court
In one night, in an affluent suburb of Chicago, two 18-year-old sons died, one couple was arrested and three families’ worlds were shattered. More than four years after this tragic house party, the decisions that Illinois’ Supreme Court and its Legislature will make over the next few weeks can impact the one-and-a-half million households with children in the state. And much of it hinges on the legal definition of “social host”.
The story begins on October 13, 2006, when a college student throws a party at his home, with his parents present to ensure no one is drinking. Despite their presence, the guests drink and hours later, an intoxicated 18-year-old and his passenger die when he drives into a tree. The parents, Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell, – who were not accused of serving or providing alcohol — are convicted of two misdemeanors, pay steep fines and — in the case of the father — serves 14 days in jail. Headlines blare, experts speak, and several laws and ordinances are created in the aftermath, most importantly an amendment to Illinois’ Liquor Control Act making it a Class 4 felony if any person [meaning minors are also liable] knowingly permits or allows a minor to drink and a death occurs as a result of that intoxication.
On March 8, 2011, Illinois House of Representatives passes a stiffened version of the Liquor Control Act and it’s now in assignments at the Senate. House Bill 1554 broadens the law by removing the “knowingly” clause and adds the phrase “knows or reasonably should know”. It adds “bodily harm” to the felony clause and removes the requirement that the “person” is aware the minor has left the house. The language is surprisingly similar to a clause in an earlier version of the Liquor Control Act (Chapter 235. Liquor Act 5. Article VI (c)) which was considered unconstitutionally vague in 2002.
If the most recent amendment is passed by the State Senate, a law-abiding, well-respected Illinois couple can go out for dinner one Saturday night and come home in time to be arrested for a Class 4 felony, several misdemeanors and years of legal trouble because their 16-year-old daughter broke into the liquor cabinet and her friend broke her nose when she tripped on the stairs. Worse, the 16-year-old daughter is equally liable. Worse yet, the younger children can now be taken by the state because Mom and Dad are in jail or are convicted felons. Unlikely? Think not..
The legal landscape gets weirder. The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case brought by the mother of Daniel Bell, the 18-year-old driver who died leaving the Hutsell’s house. She’s seeking to make the Hutsells civilly liable, which isn’t allowed under the Liquor Control Act. Her argument is the Hutsells were wrongly convicted; they weren’t “Social Hosts” since they didn’t provide or serve the alcohol Instead, the lawsuit alleges the Hutsells “voluntarily undertook duty to prevent consumption of alcohol at party on their premises and negligently performed duty”. If the Supreme Court agrees, the Bells can sue the Hutsells in civil court for millions of dollars.
It all depends on the definition of “Social Host.”