The estate of an Indiana man who died following a fistfight at a house party won a partial victory before the Indiana Supreme Court recently, paving the way for at least one wrongful death claim to proceed to trial.
In Rogers v. Martin, the plaintiff alleged the defendant, who co-hosted a house party at which alcohol was served, breached her landowner-invitee duty to exercise reasonable care to protect those on her property and also violated the state’s Dram Shop Act, resulting in harm to another person.
This case highlights the duty of care party hosts owe to their guests, which is an important consideration especially as we’re nearing the holidays, when there tends to be an increase in large gatherings.
According to court records, the defendant and her boyfriend (now husband) co-hosted a house party at a home she owned (and where her boyfriend lived on-and-off). In preparation for the get-together, the defendant’s boyfriend ordered a keg of beer, picked it up, and set it up in the garage. He paid for it with a debit card he and his girlfriend used for household expenses. The account was solely in his girlfriend’s name, but both contributed to the balance and regularly pooled their income to cover expenses, even though she earned much more than he did.
At this party, alcohol was served. Guests, who included friends and co-workers, began arriving at around 6 p.m. There were about 50 people in all. Two of those guests included the decedent and her boyfriend. The decedent’s boyfriend was a co-worker of the defendant’s boyfriend and had been personally invited to the party. Neither the defendant nor her boyfriend had previously met the decedent. Guests largely served themselves from the keg, although at one point, the defendant did serve her boyfriend and others at a poker table with a pitcher from the keg. The defendant did not monitor her boyfriend’s drinking, even though he was on probation for his second operating while intoxicated conviction.
The defendant went to bed at around 2 a.m. About 1.5 hours later, the defendant’s boyfriend asked the last of the guests to go, and for some reason, a fistfight broke out. The boyfriend went to get his girlfriend to ask for her help in getting the guests to leave. She did, and when she went to the basement, she saw the decedent motionless on the floor. She thought maybe he had simply drunk too much alcohol, but she suggested maybe he should be checked out at a local hospital, but she did not call 911. The two men carried the unconscious man upstairs and outside.
Ultimately, the police were called, and they discovered the decedent outside the home, dead. The defendant’s boyfriend was arrested, although prosecutors ultimately dropped the case, citing self-defense.
Later, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate claimed the defendant was liable for negligently causing the decedent’s injuries and for furnishing alcohol to her visibly intoxicated boyfriend, who assaulted the decedent, leading to his death.
The defendant filed for summary judgment on both claims, which the trial court granted, reasoning she was not negligent because Indiana doesn’t recognize the duty of a social host to render aid to a social guest and furthermore because she did not “furnish” beers to her boyfriend because the couple had exercised joint control over the alcohol.
The appellate court reversed, finding summary judgment was not proper because the defendant, as a social host, owed the decedent a duty to render aid, and there were questions of fact as to whether she breached that duty. Furthermore, there were questions of fact as to whether she had actually “furnished” alcohol to her boyfriend.
On review, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed in part.
With regard to the Dram Shop Act violation and the question of whether she “furnished” alcohol to the decedent’s attacker, the court ruled the plain meaning of the statute requires a transfer of possession. The couple jointly possessed the alcohol, and therefore the defendant could not have transferred possession to her boyfriend.
However, on the issue of negligence, a question of fact remained, the court ruled. In order to prevail, the plaintiff needs to show:
- The defendant owed a duty of care;
- The defendant breached that duty; and
- Her breach caused the plaintiff a compensable personal injury.
Here, the allegation was that the defendant was negligent in failing to render aid after finding him seriously injured on the floor of her basement. The appellate court ruled social hosts do have a duty to render aid. The Indiana Supreme Court agreed that summary judgment on the negligence claim was improper, but for a different reason. The justices ruled that the duty governing the defendant’s conduct, which is the duty to exercise reasonable care for an invitee on the premises, is already a duty outlined in existing premises liability law. Here, the question was whether the defendant owed a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect the decedent from the harm caused in the fistfight and whether she owed a duty to protect him from the exacerbation of his injuries after finding him unconscious. Since these questions remained unanswered, they should be answered at trial, the court ruled.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including in Gary and Hammond. Call Toll-Free at 877-446-5294.
Rogers v. Martin, Oct. 26, 2016, Indiana Supreme Court
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Bicyclists at Risk of Injury by Impatient, Careless Motorists, Oct. 7, 2016, Gary Indiana Injury Lawyer Blog