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Parental Liability for Teen Drinking

Maryland Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler was among a group of parents who went together to rent a beach house for their sons to celebrate their recent high school graduation. The parents' guidelines for the party forbade driving and drinking "hard alcohol." From the pictures taken of the Maryland Attorney General at the party--supposedly only there to talk to his son briefly--Gansler's visit was not all that brief and should have raised clear red flags that not only was alcohol being consumed, but it was being consumed in large quantities. When the pictures of him at the party surfaced, Gansler's response was as follows: "My responsibility is only to my child. Everybody has their own moral compass. Mine is to raise my own child."

Not only is this a morally hypocritical argument given the fact that Gansler appeared in a Public Service Announcement in 2012 urging parents to assume the primary role in preventing underage drinking, but it is legally flat wrong. The chief law enforcer of the State of Maryland should know that any adult who discovers underage drinking at a party of teens has a legal duty to stop the party and/or call theorize. Underage drinking is a crime, and therefore the adult is witnessing a crime.

Even more legally troubling for Gansler is the fact that he and a group of other parents rented the beach house for the party and came up with the list of guidelines that allegedly included "no driving, and no drinking hard alcohol," the obvious implication being that wine and beer were allowed, and therefore no driving would be allowed.

An attempt at responsible parenting given the reality of how 18-19 year olds party? Not exactly. Gansler may not have been serving the drinks, but he may as well have been for purposes of legal liability (and exactly who did provide the alcohol at the party?). Just as when parents allow their children to have parties at their home and underage drinking occurs, parents who rent places for parties where underage drinking takes place are liable for any damage--personal injuries and/or property--that arise from it. The parents may also be criminally liable. This is known as Social Host Liability, and Gansler should have been well aware of it since most states, including Maryland adopted it into law. Delaware, where the party was held, incorporated the doctrine into its criminal code. Georgia, like many states, includes Social Host Liability under the more familiar Dram Shop Act liability.

With the holiday season fast approaching, we would do well to learn from Attorney General Gansler's mistake. Underage drinking by anyone is a problem for all of us. Reporting it and stopping it is not only a matter of moral responsibility but of legal duty. Ignoring that legal duty can result in you being liable for the accident that occurs when a teenager drives away from the party drunk and causes an accident; when a teen mixes drugs you didn't know about with beer at the party and ends up at the ER or worse; and for property damages caused by the party. So be a good parent, adult, and host, and do not allow underage drinking.

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