August 15, 2020

Are parents liable in teen drunk driving case?

In Janet Bell, Indv., etc., v. Jeffrey Hutsell et al. , No. 110724A, the court determined that a Lake County couple are not legally liable for the alcohol-related death of their son’s friend. The mother of the deceased teen brought a lawsuit against the Lake County parents (“defendants”) claiming that they voluntarily undertook the duty to monitor minors and should have made sure the minors were not drinking.  The complaint alleges that the defendants witnessed underage drinking and they did nothing to stop it.  The teenager died in 2006 of a car crash on his way home from the defendant’s home.  The mother also alleged a violation of two statutes: the Liquor Control Act and the Drug of Alcohol Impaired Minor Responsibility Act.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss because there is no social host liability, therefore no voluntary undertaking. Lake County Circuit Court dismissed the case, and the appellate court affirmed the decisions on the alcohol-related acts, but reversed on the voluntary undertaking counts.  The Illinois Supreme Court aligned with the Circuit Court because it appears they are hesitant to extend voluntary undertaking law, specifically the social-host liability rule.

The court examined Section 323 and 324A of the Restatement (second) of Torts to examine the scope of the duty. The court stated:  “[a]lthough the cited sections of the Restatement of Torts do not address a situation like this, where there is a narrowly disseminated statement of intent to engage in a course of conduct, … comments to Section 323 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts do address circumstances under which a mere promise, without entering upon performance, might qualify as sufficient undertaking within the rule state in that section.”

Further, the court said, “[a]t most, the allegations of plaintiff’s complaint suggest that defendants failed to follow through on an expressed intent to act that might have protected the teenager — who was legally underage for the consumption of alcohol, but an adult for most other purposes — against his own volitional acts.  We conclude the allegations of plaintiff’s complaint are insufficient to state a legal duty and a basis for liability on the part of the defendants under either Section 323 or 324A of the Restatement.”

The court found the defendants had no duty to prohibit his consumption or possession and took no action to do so—it was a classic example of nonfeasance.

 

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