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Having a holiday party? You can be sued if a guest drinks and drives and kills someone

Hosts must keep a reasonable eye out for over-indulging guests


With the holiday party season well underway, North Carolina law enforcement agencies are stepping up enforcement efforts to catch those who choose to make merry by getting overly intoxicated, and then driving home drunk, the state Dept. of Transportation announced this month.

Meanwhile, party hosts should be aware that if they over-serve alcoholic beverages to their guests, and the drunken guest causes a car crash that injures or kills someone, North Carolina courts have said the host can be held liable in a lawsuit.

This includes people who have a party at their home for their family and friends, and businesses that hold a party for their employees. Businesses could be in lawsuit jeopardy even if the party is held at a bar, restaurant or another public gathering space other than the business’ customary worksite.

Read on for more details:

Increased holiday season law enforcement

Police agencies around North Carolina are stepping up patrols and setting up checkpoints under one of the Booze it and Lose it campaigns of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. This is to discourage people from driving drunk after attending a Christmas or New Year’s party, the NCDOT said in a news release on Dec. 11.

The campaign runs through Jan. 1, it said.

Locally, Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis W. Wright is asking people to pledge not to drink and drive. 

“Too many people are spending the holiday season missing a loved one whose life was ended by an impaired driver,” Wright said in a statement on Facebook. “Impaired driving puts everyone at risk. I am asking our community members to take a pledge and not drive while impaired. We need your help to make our County a safer place.”

His office said that as of Friday, at least 192 people had been killed in Cumberland County over the years by impaired drivers.

Statewide, there were 471 alcohol-related crash fatalities in 2022, the NCDOT said.

Wright’s call for people to pledge not to drink and drive cites the death a year ago of 23-year-old Deputy Oscar Yovani Bolanos-Anavisca Jr. while on duty.

Bolanos-Anavisca was struck and killed by a vehicle while walking along Gillespie Street as he and other deputies were investigating a convenience store robbery, CityView previously reported.

Law enforcement said Nicholas Terlizzi, 25, was the driver. Court records say he was charged with felony death by motor vehicle, felony hit-and-run causing serious injury or death, and second degree murder. The records say Terlizzi’s blood alcohol level was 0.19%, more than double the legal definition of alcohol impairment, which is 0.08%.

Terlizzi also faces a misdemeanor charge of illegally carrying a concealed gun without a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

You can get sued and lose if you over-serve a guest at your party

Party hosts (or their insurance companies) have had to pay the victims of driving-while-impaired crashes if the drivers got drunk at the hosts’ parties, said personal injury lawyer Will Owen of the Musselwhite, Musselwhite, Branch & Grantham law firm in Lumberton.

These negligence lawsuits are brought under a legal concept called “social host liability,” Owen said.

Social host liability applies to parties in residential homes, he said, as well as parties anywhere else, such as workplace holiday parties, workplace parties at restaurants or bars or event spaces, or elsewhere.

“You owe a duty of care — a duty of reasonable care — to innocent third parties that are on the roadway or near the roadway,” Owen said.

A 1992 North Carolina lawsuit known as Hart v. Ivey established this with a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling in 1992.

In that case, The News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh reported in September 1992, an 18-year-old man got drunk at a party in 1989 and while driving later crossed the road centerline and crashed into another car. A woman in the car suffered permanent injuries to her legs.

In short, Owen said, party hosts have a responsibility to reasonably be aware of guests who are too drunk to drive, and to take steps to stop them from getting behind the wheel.

But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, he said.

“You’ve got to act as a ‘reasonable person’ under the circumstances,” Owen said. “You don’t have to be a perfect person. You know, things happen. You’ve got to be ‘reasonable.’”

It can come down to whether the host knew or reasonably should have been aware of the guest’s intoxication level, he said. If the guest does not appear intoxicated, there could be less responsibility levied onto the host if the case gets to a trial, he said.

Party hosts can shield themselves, at least in part, if they hire professional caterers or bartenders to serve the alcoholic drinks, Owen said.

This also would help protect employers who hold a holiday party at a restaurant or other off-worksite location. The restaurant would pick up some of the responsibility, he said.

If a DWI crash lawsuit comes from a party at a residence, homeowner insurance may handle it, Owen said. But homeowners should check their policies carefully to be sure.

Party hosts — whether at a home or at a business — can also purchase event insurance to cover liability for incidents connected to the party, Owen said.

Reporter Lexi Solomon contributed to this report.

Senior reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@cityviewnc.com.

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alcohol, dwi, cumberland county sheriff, death by motor vehicle, holiday, parties, courts