In a recent opinion, Estate of Brandon Tyler v Nicholas Gomes, 459 N.J. Super. 377 (App. Div. 2019), the NJ Superior Court of Appeals held that a young adult, under twenty-one, can be civilly liable for facilitating the underage drinking of other young adults at his or her place of residence.
On November 9, 2014, Brandon Narleski, Mark Zwierzynski, and two other friends, purchased a half-gallon of vodka and three beers from a local liquor store. The young adults were all over the age of eighteen, but under the legal drinking age of twenty-one. The liquor store did not ask them for identification. The group returned to Zwierzynski’s home, where they were joined by Nicholas Gomes. After drinking the purchased alcohol, Gomes set out to drive Narleski to another friend’s house. While en route, Gomes lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a highway median. His blood alcohol level was more than double the legal limit. Narleski was pronounced dead at the scene.
Narleski’s Estate filed a wrongful death action against Gomes and the liquor store, Amboy Food Liquor and News, Inc. (hereinafter “Amboy”). In turn, Amboy filed a third-party complaint against Zwierzynski, and his parents, seeking contribution and indemnity. Amboy alleged that Zwierzynski and his parents were negligent in failing to supervise Narleski and Gomes, which enabled them to consume alcohol in their home. The Zwierzynskis moved for summary judgement. The trial court granted the motion. The Judge concluded that Zwierzynski and his parents did not have a legal duty to supervise the underage individuals drinking alcohol in their home because those individuals were legal adults.
After settling with Narleski’s Estate, Amboy appealed the Trial Court’s summary judgement dismissal Zwierzynski and his parents. Amboy argued that Zwierzynski and his parents had a legal duty to dissuade the group of friends from drinking in the Zwierzynski home. In facilitating the underage drinking, they breached that duty and should be held civilly liable. The Zwierzynskis maintained that the current law did not impose a duty on them to discourage the behavior of a group of legal adults.
The Appellate Division agreed with the Zwierzynskis and upheld the grant of summary judgement. The New Jersey Social Host Statute imposes civil liability on a host who serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest who then causes a foreseeable injury to a third party. N.J.S.A 2A:15-5.5 to 5.8. Although seemingly on point, Zwierzynski did not qualify as a social host under the statute. The statute defines a “social host” as a person “who legally provides alcoholic beverages to another person who has attained the legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages.” N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.5. Zwierzynski was underage and could not legally provide alcohol to anyone. Furthermore, all four of the young men at the house were under the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol. The Statute did not apply. The Appellate Division further found that there was no evidence that Zwierzynski’s parents had knowledge of, or consented to, the underage consumption of alcohol at their house; therefore, they owed no duty to Narleski. The existing law, as written, did not impose any liability on the Zwierzynskis.
Despite upholding the law in this case, the Appellate Division held that going forward a young adult, under twenty-one, can be civilly liable for facilitating the underage drinking of other underage adults at his or her place of residence. The Appellate Division believed this to be a reasonable extension of the current law and in accordance with public policy. The new rule formally takes effect on December 3, 2019.
This case is significant because it expands the liability of a “social host” to include young adults between the ages of 18 and 21. Prior to this case, liability of a social host was limited to adults over the age of twenty-one. Thus, while previously protected, the new rule now exposes young adults to Social Host liability and the consequences arising therefrom. The new law may create significantly more lawsuits under the Social Host Statute and create greater exposure for homeowners’ insurance carriers.
 Eric Schlesinger, Esq. is a Shareholder in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. He defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and New York State and Federal Courts. Eric can be reached at email@example.com.
 Alexis Carrelli, Esq. is an Associate in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. She defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and Federal Courts. Alexis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.