Homeowner potentially liable to intoxicated party goer who died

In a timely decision for the holiday party season, the Indiana Court of Appeals issued a decision on December 14th in Rogers v. Martin, et. al. regarding the potential liability of a homeowner for the death of a party goer.

In May 2010, the defendant, Amanda Martin, hosted a birthday party for her live-in boyfriend, Brian Brothers.  Amanda and Brian invited friends, family, and co-workers to the party.  Brian purchased a keg of beer for the party.  About fifty people attended the party, including Brian’s co-worker, Jerry Chambers and Jerry’s significant other, Paul Michalik.

During the party guests generally served themselves from the keg.  However, a pitcher was used to take beer from the keg in the basement.  At some point, Amanda (homeowner) used the pitcher to take beer to the basement.  The facts weren’t clear, but it is possible when Amanda took beer to the basement that Brian was playing poker at the time.

At around 2:00 a.m., about ten guests remained, playing cards in basement, and Amanda went to bed.  Around 3:30 a.m. Brian woke up Amanda to tell Amanda when he asked Chambers and Michalik to leave, a fist fight ensued, during which Brian fought Chambers and Michalik and punched Chambers in the nose.

Brian asked for Amanda’s help getting Chambers and Michalik to leave.  When Amanda went to the basement, Michalik was lying unconscious on the floor.  Brian and Chambers checked for a pulse and confirmed that Michalik was breathing.  Amanda returned to bed as Brian and Chambers carried Michalik upstairs to leave.  When Brian came to bed, Amanda asked if Chambers and Michalik had left.  Brian said no, and Amanda instructed him to make sure the men got into their car and left. Shortly thereafter, police arrived, and Michalik was found dead in Amanda’s yard.

Michalik’s estate filed a complaint against Amanda and Brian alleging in part that Amanda violated the Dram Shop Act by furnishing alcohol to Brian and that Amanda failed to render aid to Michalik.  Amanda’s attorneys filed a motion for summary judgment in the trial court and the trial court granted her motion.  Michalik’s estate appealed.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision and ruled that there was a sufficient factual issue to be resolved at a jury trial.  The Indiana Dram Shop Act, Ind. Code 7.1-5-10-15.5, defines when a person can be liable for providing alcohol to another person:

(a) As used in this section, “furnish” includes barter, deliver, sell, exchange, provide, or give away.

(b) A person who furnishes an alcoholic beverage to a person is not liable in a civil action for damages caused by the impairment or intoxication of the person who was furnished the alcoholic beverage unless:

(1) the person furnishing the alcoholic beverage had actual knowledge that the person to whom the alcoholic beverage was furnished was visibly intoxicated at the time the alcoholic beverage was furnished; and

(2) the intoxication of the person to whom the alcoholic beverage was furnished was a proximate cause of the death, injury, or damage alleged in the complaint.

A person can be liable for serving an intoxicated person “one more drink.”  The Court of Appeals found that “the possibility that [Amanda] served beer to [her boyfriend Brian], even if they jointly acquired the keg itself, is sufficient, though minimally so, to raise a factual issue to be resolved at trial.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals held that Amanda had a duty, as the homeowner and host of the party, to exercise reasonable care for Michalik.  This reasonable care requirement creates a duty to render aid to an injured guest on his or her property.  The Court of Appeals held that there was a sufficient factual issue for this issue to proceed to a jury trial.

This Court of Appeals decision does not mean that Amanda is liable to the Michalik estate.  Rather, the Court of Appeals held that all of these matters should proceed to a trial, and a jury should decide whether Amanda is liable to the Michalik estate.