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State high court may end a protection for party hosts in alcohol suits

Some justices appear ready to open the way for lawsuits against people who charge fees to attend underage drinking parties and an intoxicated guest hurts someone.

February 16, 2014|By Maura Dolan

SAN FRANCISCO — Jessica Manosa was 20 when she decided to throw a party at an unoccupied rental home her parents owned — without their permission.

Word of the bash in Diamond Bar spread by text message, and many who showed up did not even know Manosa, according to court records. They drank liquor, danced and got drunk.

One of the partygoers was asked to leave after he began dropping his pants while dancing. As he drove away, he ran over another inebriated guest, a 19-year-old student, killing him. Now the grieving family wants to hold Manosa — via her parents and their homeowners insurance — liable for his death.

The case, which will soon be decided by the California Supreme Court, will determine whether young people who host underage drinking parties and charge for admission can be held liable if an intoxicated guest hurts himself or others. The ruling could create a significant crack in a legal shield that has long protected party hosts in California from alcohol-related lawsuits.

"The question is: Will justice be served when parents who have no knowledge that a party is going on at their house are essentially vicariously liable because they have an 18-year-old child who throws a party while they are gone?" Gary Watt, an appellate lawyer who represents defendants in such cases, said in an interview.

Lawyers for the parents of Andrew Ennabe, the Cal State Fullerton student who was killed, say the answer is yes. "His parents are still distraught," said Abdalla J. Innabi, their lead lawyer. "This was their middle child who lived at home. His death really has taken a big chunk out of their lives."

In the 1970s, the California Supreme Court made social hosts who serve alcohol to intoxicated guests liable for their harmful behavior. The Legislature responded by creating immunity for social hosts but later carved out an exception for individuals, whether licensed or not, who sell alcohol.

The strangers who showed up at Manosa's party were charged $3 to $5 at the door to cover the cost of the liquor. The state high court must decide whether such cover charges, common at student parties, constituted sales. If so, Manosa could be held liable for Ennabe's death, and her parents' insurance company would be responsible for monetary damages.

A trial court and an appeals court decided Manosa was not legally responsible because she did not intend to profit from the entrance fee but merely to defray the cost of the alcohol. The Legislature did not intend "to impose liability on social hosts and guests who contribute money to a common fund to purchase alcoholic beverages for a social occasion," the unanimous appeals court held.

But during a hearing in December, some members of the state's highest court appeared ready to overturn the decision. A ruling is expected by early March.

A decision for Ennabe's parents could have wide effect, given the prevalence of teenage parties with cover charges. With news of such gatherings spreading fast on social media and by text, underage drinking parties often spin out of control. Lives are lost, and settlements of lawsuits involving deaths or severe injuries have run into the millions of dollars.

Lawyers for Ennabe argued in court papers that hosts such as Manosa must be held responsible "to protect the citizens of California, including minors, from the negative consequences of underage drinking."

Manosa's lawyer has countered that collecting a cover charge from uninvited guests "did not transform Manosa from social host to saleswoman."

"From the beginning, Manosa intended this to be a social occasion," Richard H. Nakamura, her lawyer, told the California Supreme Court. "It was a one-time event. She had no preconceived plan to turn a profit from her party.... At most, the fee was an individualized, discretionary assessment to control admission to a private social gathering."

Manosa was a college student in 2007 when she invited several friends to a party at the unfurnished house her parents owned, according to legal documents. She hired a DJ and spent about $60 on alcohol. About $60 more was collected at the door from uninvited guests and used to buy additional liquor as the party wore on.

Ennabe, one of Manosa's friends, arrived from another party where he had been drinking, witnesses said. Thomas Garcia, 20, showed up later with more people. He did not know Manosa or her friends, and Manosa said later that she had not even seen him that night. He paid $20 for himself and his friends to enter, according to court documents.

Witnesses said Garcia drank hard liquor at the party, became belligerent and harassed female guests. He had been there about 90 minutes when he was asked to leave. Ennabe and his high school soccer friends escorted Garcia and his buddies out to the street.

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