Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

Illinois Supreme Court rules on Bell v. Hutsell, redefines civil liability for Social Hosts

[This is an update on Echoes of a tragedy resound in Illinois’ legislature and Supreme Court]

In a landmark case twisting the definition of the term “Social Host” in Illinois to an unrecognizable shape, the Illinois Supreme Court has determined that Good Samaritan-style behavior may be the worst thing you can do when you discover an intoxicated teen in your home.

Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court finally filed an opinion in the civil case of Bell v. Hutsell. Finding in favor of the plaintiffs, Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell, the court determined the suburban Chicago couple were not civilly liable for the 2006 drunk driving death of 18-year-old Daniel Bell after a party in their home. In 2007, the Hutsells were found criminally liable because guests at their son’s 2006 party consumed alcohol on their property and one such guest drove away from their home causing the death of his passenger and himself.

The Court’s opinion goes on to state that the Hutsells aren’t civilly liable because of their inaction, because they did nothing to prevent what would have happened had they not been at the party in the first place. In fact, had the Hutsells intervened when Daniel Bell tried to leave their home intoxicated, or had they taken responsibility for preventing Bell’s alcohol consumption, and he still drove away and died, they would have been civilly liable for negligence in addition to their criminal conviction in 2007.

Because defendants in this case took no affirmative acts to effect
the aim of their expressed intention, i.e., prohibition, and no one
changed position as a result of their statement, relied upon it, or was
put at “increase[d] *** risk of *** harm” or “in a worse position”
because of it (see Restatement (Second) of Torts §323 (1965)), the
factual allegations of this case do not support a basis for finding a duty
undertaken or liability for violation of any such duty. Indeed, under
these circumstances, it would be illogical, and unsound policy, to hold
that defendants could be liable: illogical, because defendants’ failure
to act on their stated intention did not in any way affect the events as
they would have unfolded had the intent to act not been verbalized;
unsound policy, because the imposition of a duty and liability in this
situation would only serve as a deterrent to those who would consider
volunteering assistance to others, in effect punishing people for
thinking out loud. At most, the allegations of plaintiff’s complaint
suggest that defendants failed to follow through on an expressed
intent to act that might have protected Daniel—who was legally
underage for the consumption of alcohol, but an adult for most other
purposes—against his own volitional acts, or that defendants simply
abandoned their original undertaking, whether it was intended for their
own protection from the perceived potential of liability, or a genuine
concern for the safety of Daniel and other partygoers. We conclude
the allegations of plaintiff’s complaint are insufficient to state a legal
duty and a basis for liability on the part of defendants under either
section 323 or 324A of the Restatement.

Why? Because in 2003, the Court determined that the 1997 death of a 16-year-old who consumed a large quantity of hard liquor was due to the inadequate adult intervention in her care. “Wakulich v. Mraz, 203 Ill. 2d 223 (2003) (recognizing liability of hosts on a theory of voluntary undertaking where defendants allegedly exerted control over a helpless, inebriated 16-year-old to her detriment).”

Bell’s mother, Janet Bell, has been pursuing the Hutsells through the Chicago and Illinois courts determined to add additional financial consequences to the fines, probation sentences and — in Jeffrey Hutsell’s case — jail time served by the couple when they were convicted of two misdemeanors. Although we can all understand how her grief has motivated Ms. Bell to follow this legal course, the result is unfortunate and bizarre.

To learn more:

Echoes of a tragedy resound in Illinois’ legislature and Supreme Court – March 20, 2011 – Underage Drinking & the Law – Byline: HM Epstein

Court: Deerfield Couple Not Liable in Teen’s Drunk Driving Death – May 20, 2011 – FOX Chicago News – Byline: Tisha Lewis

Lake County couple not liable in underage drunken driving death – May 19, 2011 – The Daily Herald – Byline: Jeff Engelhardt

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