Social Host Liability Laws

Social Host Liability Laws Peggy Kelley Thu, 10/25/2018 - 03:55 PM EDT


Social host liability laws impose civil and/or criminal penalties on individuals (social hosts) for underage drinking events held on property they own, lease, or otherwise control.


  • To decrease social access to alcohol by underage youth
  • To deter underage drinking parties

Typical Elements

  • Social host liability laws can exist at the state and/or local level.
    • Tip: State-level information on key components of social host liability laws can be found at the Alcohol Policy Information System website.
  • Typically three types of social host laws:
    • State civil statutes or court decisions: Gives injured person(s) the right to sue social host(s)
    • State criminal statutes: Makes social hosting a misdemeanor and imposes sanctions, such as fines or imprisonment
    • City or county ordinances: Vary from civil and criminal statutes based on jurisdiction and influenced by state laws
      • Note: State laws can allow local jurisdictions to enact additional requirements not included in state law. Conversely, they can also prohibit local legislation by preempting local powers (APIS, 2013). Therefore, further investigation into how specific states handle local ordinances can be necessary.
  • Criminal and civil social host laws (Applied Research for Community Health and Safety, 2009). These include:
    • Penalties: Criminal laws carry stronger penalties than civil laws and include the potential for incarceration.
    • Standard of proof: Because criminal penalties are more severe, they require a higher standard of proof than civil penalties. In criminal law, evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” must demonstrate that the person in control of the premises “knew or should have known” that underage youth were drinking alcohol and did not take action to stop it. In civil law, “a preponderance of the evidence” is required to demonstrate proof of some violation, harm, or negligence (p. 6).
    • Enforcement: Criminal penalties can be more difficult to enforce than civil penalties because social host violations (e.g., infractions, misdemeanors) can be given lower priority than more serious criminal acts (e.g., felonies).
  • Inclusion of the following parameters (Applied Research for Community Health and Safety, 2009):
    • Definition of gathering or party: The most common definition is a gathering of two or more people in a location where minors are consuming, possessing, or being served alcohol.
    • Explicit statement that underage drinking is prohibited: Without this statement, it may not be technically illegal for minors to drink alcohol on private property; most current laws make only possession and being intoxicated illegal. When drinking takes place at a private residence, possession is difficult to prove. To establish intoxication, law enforcement must have observable evidence before they can administer any test (e.g., breathalyzer). When consumption has been made illegal, however, law enforcement can administer a breathalyzer to any minors present; if the test is positive, the minor can be cited in addition to the party host.
    • Explicit statement that addresses loud or unruly behavior: Many ordinances contain a noise-restriction section, which can be the same as local codes regarding allowable noise levels during specified hours. Disruptive behavior (e.g., fights, property damage, public urination) can also be included. Violations do not require that underage drinking is occurring.
    • Identification of responsible parties: Determine, for example, whether the law covers adults who provide alcohol to underage youth, those who are obviously intoxicated, or both; people who control the property (owners, renters, or tenants) where underage drinking or service to obviously intoxicated persons occurs; and/or underage youth in possession of alcohol.
      • Note: The greater the number of responsible parties identified, the more effective the law is likely to be at deterring underage drinking parties and their consequences.
    • Clear consequences for non-compliance: Typical penalties include (1) monetary fine (criminal infraction); (2) monetary fine and/or up to six months’ imprisonment (criminal misdemeanor); and (3) civil/administrative monetary penalties, community service, education, counseling, and civil/administrative response cost recovery (civil public nuisance).
    • A process for challenging penalties: Describe the violator’s right to appeal to the courts, the procedure for doing so, the hearing process, and the notification procedure explaining how the violator will be made aware of penalties and his or her right to be heard and offer a defense.
  • A communication campaign to raise public awareness about, build community support for, and increase the deterrent effect of the law/ordinance. See Media Advocacy and Social Marketing.


  • Parents and other adults
  • Youth under age 21


  • Implementation of social host liability laws has been associated with reductions in:
    • Alcohol-related traffic fatality rates for 18–20 year olds (Dills, 2010)
    • Total motor vehicle deaths for minors (Whetten-Goldstein, Sloan, Stout, & Liang, 2000)
    • Self-reported probability of heavy, episodic drinking and driving while under the influence among all drinkers (Stout, Sloan, Liang, & Davies, 2000)
    • Underage drinking in private settings, especially among youth who already initiated alcohol use (Paschall, Lipperman-Kreda, Grube, & Thomas, 2014)
  • Relative to comparison communities, those communities with social host liability laws have demonstrated reductions in youth drinking in large peer groups (Wagoner et al., 2013).


Holding Adults Accountable for Underage Drinking at House Parties through Social Host Laws

Model Social Host Liability Ordinance with Legal Commentary and Resources

Policies to Reduce Social Access to Alcohol

Preventing Underage Drinking: Using Getting to Outcomes™ with the SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework to Achieve Results

Underage Drinking: Prohibitions Against Hosting Underage Drinking Parties


Athena Forum: Excellence in Prevention


Applied Research for Community Health and Safety. (2009). Holding adults accountable for underage drinking at house parties through social host laws. San Bernardino, CA: Institute for Public Strategies. Retrieved from

Dills, A. K. (2010). Social host liability for minors and underage drunk-driving accidents. Journal of Health Economics, 29(2), 241–249.

Imm, P., Chinman, M., Wandersman, A., Rosenbloom, D., Guckenburg, S., & Leis, R. (2007). Preventing underage drinking: Using Getting To Outcomes™ with the SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework to achieve results. Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage drinking: Prohibitions against hosting underage drinking parties. Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) Web site. Retrieved from

Paschall, M. J., Lipperman-Kreda, S., Grube, J. W., & Thomas, S. (2014). Relationships between social host laws and underage drinking: Findings from a study of 50 California cities. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75(6), 901–907.

Stout, E. M., Sloan, F. A., Liang, L., & Davies, H. H. (2000). Reducing harmful alcohol-related behaviors: Effective regulatory methods. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 61(3), 402–412.

Wagoner, K G., Sparks, M., Francisco, V. T., Wyrick, D., Nichols, T., & Wolfson, M. (2013). Social host policies and underage drinking parties. Substance Use & Misuse, 48(1–2), 41–53.

Whetten-Goldstein, K., Sloan, F., Stout, E., & Liang, L. (2000). Civil liability, criminal law, and other policies and alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities in the United States: 1984–1995. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 32(6), 723–733.