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Defendant Underage Adult May Be Held Liable To Third Party Injured Due To Defendant Facilitating The Use Of Alcohol To Underage Adult At His Residence

By on September 25, 2020 in Negligence with 0 Comments

Defendant Mark Zwierzynski (“Zwierzynski”), age 19, permitted his underage adult friends to consume alcoholic beverages in his home. Two of his guests, plaintiff’s decedent Brandon Tyler Narleski (age 19) and plaintiff Nicholas Gomes (age 20) left his home severely intoxicated. Shortly thereafter, Gomes lost control of his vehicle and crashed, causing Narleski’s death. In Estate of Narleski v. Gomes, 2020 N.J. LEXIS 993 (2020), the New Jersey Supreme Court was asked to decide whether there is a duty on underage adults – over the age of 18 but under 21 – “to refrain from making their homes a safe haven for underage guests to consume alcoholic beverages and, if so, the standard of liability if an underage guest, who becomes intoxicated, afterwards drives a motor vehicle and injures or kills a third party.”

Narleski’s parents filed a wrongful death action against Gomes, Gomes’ parents and Amboy Food Liquor and News (“Amboy”) where Narleski purchased the alcohol. Thereafter, Amboy sued Zwierzynski in a third party complaint.

On the trial court level, Zwierzynski was granted a summary judgment, dismissing the third party complaint, arguing successfully that he did not have a duty to supervise his friends. That ruling was appealed to the Appellate Division which set forth a new rule of law, to be applied prospectively only, that an underage adult “shall owe a common law duty to injured parties to desist from facilitating the drinking of alcohol by underage adults in his place of residence, regardless of whether he owns, rents, or manages the premises.”

The Appellate Division decision was further appealed to the Supreme Court by petition for certification.

In rendering its decision, the Supreme Court noted that the deterrence of drunk driving has been “a preeminent policy goal of legislative enactments and our common law for many decades.” To address this continuing problem, New Jersey statutes and common law impose civil liability on taverns and social hosts “who serve or facilitate the service of alcohol to visibly intoxicated customers and guests who then get into their vehicles and maim or kill others.”

Further, under New Jersey law, a social host over the age of 21 has a duty not to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest, if it is reasonably foreseeable that the guest is about to drive. But, in Narleski, the Court was asked to address a different scenario. Does a young adult – over 18 but under 21 years old, have a duty not to facilitate the service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated underage guest in his home if the guest is expected to operate a motor vehicle?

On the afternoon of the accident, Zwierzynski and 3 friends (including Narleski) drove to the liquor store where Narleski was able to purchase beer and vodka without the store clerk asking for identification. They then drove to Zwierzynski’s home and went upstairs to begin drinking, playing video games, and watching tv. Zwierzynski’s mother was not home at the time. (His parents were separated at the time.) Later, Narleski texted his friend Gomes to come over to Zwierzynski’s home, where they were drinking. Gomes came over and drank vodka in Zwierzynski’s presence. About 50 minutes later, Narleski and Gomes decided to leave and go visit another friend. According to Gomes, he had a “buzz” and Narleski was slurring his words.

Narleski got into the passenger seat of Gomes’ vehicle and Gomes drove away. Enroute to their friend’s house, Gomes sped past a vehicle, lost control of his car, crashed into the roadway’s concrete center divider and went airborne. Narleski was ejected from the vehicle, which flipped several times and landed on top of him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The police took a blood sample from Gomes and determined that his blood alcohol level was .16% at the time of the crash – twice the permissible legal limit for an adult of legal drinking age.

Both the trial court and the Appellate Division found that there was “no established precedent in New Jersey imposed on Zwierzynski a duty to prevent his underage friends – the ones he invited into his home – from drinking or drinking excessively while in his parents’ home.” Thus, the Appellate Division felt that, under the current law, Zwierzynski would be exonerated from civil liability for Narleski’s death. But, it felt that such law would be a natural extension of existing case law on a prospective basis.

After reviewing prior case law and public policy to deter injuries from drunk driving, the Supreme Court concluded as follows:

[A]n underage social host, who makes his residence available and facilitates underage drinking, has a duty not to knowingly provide or allow self-service of alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest and, if a guest becomes visibly intoxicated, to take reasonable steps to prevent the guest from operating a motor vehicle.

For a plaintiff injured by an intoxicated underage social guest to be able to succeed in a lawsuit against an underage social host, the Court ruled that the plaintiff must prove the following:

(1) The social host knowingly permitted and facilitated the consumption of alcoholic beverages to underage guests in a residence under his control. This element does not require that the social host be a leaseholder or titleholder to the property. It is enough that the social host has the ability and apparent authority to give others access to the property;
(2) The social host knowingly provided alcohol to a visiblyintoxicated underage guest or knowingly permitted the visibly intoxicated underage guest to serve himself or be served by others. It is no defense that the underage guests bought and brought the alcoholic beverages that they or others consumed;
(3) The social host knew or reasonably should have known that the visibly intoxicated social guest would leave the premises and operate a motor vehicle and therefore would foreseeably endanger the lives and property of others;
(4) The social host did not take any reasonable steps to prevent the intoxicated guest from getting behind the wheel of the vehicle; and
(5) The social guest, as a result of intoxication facilitated by the social host, negligently operated a vehicle and proximately caused injury to a third party.

Based upon this ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the summary judgment ruling in favor of defendant Zwierzynski and remanded the matter back to the trial court for trial.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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