The Illinois Supreme Court recently clarified social host liability in Illinois in the decision of Bell v. Hutsell. The case explains how personal injury or negligence claims can arise in social host situations. These claims may include car accidents. Generally, a social host of a party where alcohol is served is not liable for injuries caused by persons who consume alcohol and thereafter cause injuries to third persons. However, under a voluntary undertaking theory, if a social host undertakes an act, then they may be civilly liable if they perform that act negligently. As an example, a parent who allows their minor child to have a party at their residence and undertakes to prevent minors from consuming alcohol, such as confiscating liquor, may be liable if an intoxicated person subsequently injures a third person.
In the case of Bell v. Hutsell, Daniel Bell, an 18-year-old, attended a party hosted by the Defendants' son, Jonathon, and allegedly consumed alcohol at said party. In the complaint, the Plaintiff alleged the Hutsells were aware of underage consumption at the house, that their son, Jonathon, had previously pled guilty to underage consumption, that underagers drank excessive amounts of alcohol within the presence of the Hutsells without any objection, and that Jerry Hutsell had spoke to a number of underage parties who had been drinking alcohol and requested that if they had drank, then not to drive. The Complaint further alleged that after consuming alcohol at the Hutsell residence Daniel Bell died in a single-car accident when his vehicle collided with a tree.
The Plaintiff's complaint was founded on a theory of voluntary undertaking (among other theories). The Defendant moved to dismiss the Complaint on the ground that there is no social host liability in Illinois and a voluntary undertaking theory is merely an attempt to circumvent the rule against social host liability. The trial court granted the Defendant's motion to dismiss the voluntary undertaking counts of Plaintiff's complaint. On review, the Appellate Court overturned the dismissal of Plaintiff's voluntary undertaking counts and remanded the case to the trial court.
The Illinois Supreme Court held the trial court properly dismissed Plaintiff's voluntary undertaking counts against the Defendants under the facts of the case. In reaching its decision, the Court rejected a general rule that a voluntary undertaking claim is "foreclosed" by the rule against social host liability. Instead, the Illinois Supreme Court expressly held that if a defendant undertakes an act, then they are subject to a duty with respect to the performance of that act. In the case before the Court, the Plaintiff failed to allege that Defendant undertook any act sufficient to give rise to a duty. Rather, Plaintiff merely alleged that Defendants had knowledge of the underage drinking and monitored the party. The Court's holding was founded on the fact that Plaintiff failed to allege an "affirmative act", such as confiscating alcohol or requesting intoxicated persons to leave the premises. Finally, the Court noted that even if the Defendants had undertaken an act, they appeared to have abandoned their undertaking.
In light of the holding in Bell v. Hutsell, there are few important things to take away. An injured person may be able to recover for their injuries against a social host under a voluntary undertaking theory if it can be shown that the Defendant undertook an affirmative act. However, it is clear that mere inaction is insufficient to create a cause of action under which a Plaintiff may seek recovery for his or her injuries. A careful review of the underlying facts and actions of the social host is imperative before deciding whether to pursue a claim. If you or your loved one has been injured by an intoxicated person, you should immediately contact a knowledgeable attorney.
By: Jason P. Schneider of the Law Offices of John Malm & Associates, P.C.
Full cite of Bell v. Hutsell decision: Bell v. Hutsell, 110724, 2011 WL 1886891 (Ill. 2011), reh'g denied (Sept. 26, 2011).
A copy of the decision can be found at: