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Illinois Ruling Reduces Liability for Underage Drinking

Parents face a number of challenges in raising their children. Teenagers, in particular, seem to present a conundrum – raising them to be independent and self-sufficient, while also protecting them. For instance, allowing your teen to drive away on a weekend night to a party requires you to have faith he or she will make smart choices about dangerous situations like underage drinking. However, you can still make certain your teen is attending parties you deem safe and appropriate by knowing who your teen’s friends are, and by opening a line of communication with those friend’s parents. But what about when a person who should be your ally, another parent, steps over that line of trust by allowing underage drinking to take place at their home? You likely assume those parents can be held both criminally and civilly liable if the drinking they allow results in injury or death. But parents in Illinois may be shocked to learn that a recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court may actually protect certain parents who knowingly allow underage drinking in their home.

In May, the Supreme Court of Illinois blocked a civil lawsuit for the wrongful death of eighteen-year-old Daniel Bell. Bell and another teen were killed when Bell crashed his car shortly after leaving a homecoming party at the home of Sara and Jeffrey Hutsell. At the time of the crash, Bell’s blood alcohol level was .132, well over the legal limit for driving. Witnesses confirmed that underage drinking openly took place at the party and that the Hutsells were aware it was happening. As a result, the Hutsells received misdemeanor criminal convictions, including allowing underage drinking in their home and endangering a child. Daniel Bell’s mother also filed a civil suit, alleging wrongful death. Sadly, this suit was overturned by the Supreme Court, citing that the couple could not be held liable because they never promised or assumed the responsibility to prevent underage drinking at their home.

Needless to say, this ruling can be confusing and troubling. It is important, therefore, to understand what this ruling means for parents, party hosts and homeowners. First, this ruling affects civil law, not criminal law. In terms of civil liability, the ruling has greatly diminished a person’s ability to receive compensation for damages as a result of underage drinking. As long as an adult does not actually provide the alcohol, the court ruling offers protections under certain circumstances for adults who knowingly allow alcohol to be consumed in their home by minors. Oddly, it asserts that an adult who knows alcohol is being consumed by a minor at their home, but who has not made any promises that it would not be, cannot be held civilly liable for any resulting damages. In short, an adult who never, through words or actions, took on the responsibility of preventing underage drinking in their home, cannot be held liable even when knowingly breaking criminal law. Shockingly, assuring anyone you will not allow minors to consume alcohol in your home does increase your liability. A parent who asserts or promises that minors will not be allowed to consume alcohol in their home are more civilly liable when drinking does occur, even when it occurs without their knowledge and despite their efforts to prevent it.

The recent ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court complicates parent’s ability to protect themselves and their children when personal injury results from underage drinking. Therefore, anyone who has been affected by injuries involving alcohol should contact a Illinois personal injury lawyer who can guide you in protecting your rights.

About the Author: Brooke Haley marketing associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation lawyer that practice in the areas of Civil Litigation, Workers’ Compensation, and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts within the State of Illinois. For more information, please visit http://www.millonpeskin.com.

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