On September 3, 2013, the HAWSCT issued an opinion (authored by Justice Nakayama) in Tracy Ah Mook Sang et al. v. Michael Clark et al., SCAP-11-0000536, a case that asked the court to answer the question “whether a social host who invites a minor onto his or her property and then directly serves alcohol to the minor owes a duty of care to prevent foreseeable injuries resulting from the consumption of alcohol, or to render or summon aid if injuries have occurred, while the minor remains on the property as a guest.” Slip. Op. at 3. According to the Court, the answer is yes.
This civil action that arose from the death of a fifteen year old girl at Mr. Clark’s house party where she was served hard liquor (and at a time when his mother was also present in the home). She became visibly sick and ultimately unconscious. Neither Mr. Clark nor his mother rendered aid. The next morning, Mr. Clark put the girl in a friend’s car and told her to leave. The unconscious girl was driven to the hospital where she was pronounced dead, although it appeared she was already dead. The cause of death was ruled acute alcohol poisoning.
The girl’s parents sued for negligence, emotional distress, and loss of consortium. The circuit court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. The circuit court agreed with the Clarks’ argument that although Hawaii law allowed for a liability claim if a social host’s underage, intoxicated guest causes injury or death to a third party, there was not otherwise a common law claim for relief based on social host liability. According to the circuit court, “it doesn’t mean that necessarily that [the law is] as it should be, but basically the law is what it is.” Slip. Op. at 13.
The HAWSCT vacated and remanded the circuit court’s decision. In doing so, the court distinguished the line of cases relied on by the Clarks (and the circuit court) that “discuss[ed] liability for injuries resulting from the provision and consumption of alcohol in both commercial and noncommercial settings[.]” Slip. Op. at 17. According to the court, “Hawaii cases addressing the liability of furnishers of alcohol in both commercial (dram shop liability) and noncommercial (social host liability) settings” are distinguishable because (1) this was not a commercial setting and (Slip. Op. at 18- 22), and (2) the prior social host case involved a non-minor, who voluntarily drank, and who then injured a third party while driving – not a claim by the guest directly against the social host. Slip. Op. at 22.
The court further explained that the Clarks owed a duty in this case because the factors from the court’s decision in Blair v. Ing, 95 Haw. 247 (2001) weighed in favor of the duty. The court held that there was a special relationship. According to the court, “by providing large amounts of hard liquor to a fifteen-year-old minor, Michael Clark knew or should have known that he created an unreasonable risk of physical harm to Makamae and thus assumed the duty to prevent the harm from occurring.” Slip. Op. at 28. The court also held that the harm was foreseeable, the girl had suffered injury at the home, there was a close connection between the injury and the Clarks’ conduct, moral blame may be attributed to the Clarks, the policy of preventing harm weighed in favor of finding a duty, and the Clarks should bear the burden of exercising care.
Thus, the HAWSCT held “that a social host in the circumstances presented in this case owes a duty of care to a minor when the host has placed the minor in a position of peril and does not act to prevent foreseeable harm to the minor that may thereby result, and when the host does not act to aid the minor in the event that harm has occurred.” Slip. Op. at 3-4.
The court’s full opinion is available here.