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‘Tis the Season for Reason: Business Owner and Social Host Liability for Holiday Drinking

With the holiday season rapidly approaching – and with it, a succession of alcohol-fueled celebrations – business owners with liquor permits and those planning to host parties should consider what could happen if they are not appropriately vigilant when deciding whom to serve cups of cheer.

Liquor liability for businesses

South Carolina courts have become more severe in punishing those who serve alcohol to people who are intoxicated, so businesses with liquor permits should review their liquor liability policies – not only their insurance policies, but also their internal protocols.

Liquor permit holders already know they can’t sell alcohol to people under 21 years of age or who are intoxicated. But they also should be aware that state law defines “intoxicated” very broadly. Even if a customer doesn’t appear to be drunk when served, business owners can be held liable for the customer’s later actions, such as an accident or a fight, if they know the customer had something to drink before coming to the establishment and the business continued to serve them alcohol. Moreover, business owners can be held personally liable for the behavior of those who overindulge. This means that plaintiffs can go after a business owner’s personal as well as business assets. The costs can be overwhelming: In one case, a bar and its owners were held liable for $10 million dollars.

How to protect your business, employees and customers

  • Make sure you have clear protocols in place for alcohol service and that your servers are aware of – and abiding by – them. Your policies should address when to stop serving a customer and how to handle someone who is intoxicated. Several trade associations provide training programs that you can use to help educate and train your servers.
  • Ensure your liquor liability insurance policy is sufficient. General liability policies typically aren’t adequate because they frequently don’t cover damages caused by underage or intoxicated people. If not, you’ll need supplemental insurance that specifically includes alcohol-related liability.

Social host liability

Before you think it’s okay to give an underage friend or relative a holiday drink or two at your party, whether because it’s a special occasion or for some other reason, remember the bottom line in South Carolina: Adults are liable for the damages caused by minors to whom they have served alcohol.

This rule is far-reaching and potentially devastating, as a social host who serves drinks to a minor is liable not only to the minor but also to anyone else the minor may injure. It’s not hard to imagine an underage guest leaving a celebration under the influence, driving drunk and getting into an accident that kills or maims another person. The damages in such a case would be enormous.

Regardless of your personal beliefs about the propriety of serving minors, keep in mind the sobering reality: Just one “slip up” or “exception” could be ruinous in every sense.

A little vigilance goes a long way

It’s important to take care to follow these straightforward steps before you find yourself confronted with a calamity. Besides peace on earth, the best holiday gift of all can be peace of mind.

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