The Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion Tuesday in two cases involving underage drinking that could make it easier for individuals to bring civil lawsuits against adults who host underage drinking parties.
The seven judges ruled unanimously that an adult who allowed underage drinking to happen inside his or her home could be held civilly responsible if the underage drinker dies or injures someone else after leaving the residence in a vehicle.
“Underage persons are not solely responsible for drinking alcohol on an adult’s property because they are not competent to handle the effects of this potentially dangerous substance,” Judge Sally Adkins wrote for Maryland’s highest court.
A lawyer representing the parents of Alex Murk, 18, who was killed in a car crash along with Calvin Li, 18, after the teens left an underage drinking party says the court’s opinion may lead to civil action against the owner of the North Potomac home where the party was held in June 2015. Homeowner Kenneth Saltzman pleaded guilty in December 2015 to two counts of allowing minors to consume alcohol at his residence and paid the maximum $2,500 penalty for each count under current law. The driver of the car, Samuel Ellis, now 19, who also admitted to drinking at the party, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in April and was sentenced in June to four years in prison.
“In my humble opinion, I absolutely think this exposes Mr. Saltzman to potential liability for the deaths of Calvin Li and Alex Murk,” said attorney Peter Grenier, who represents Murk’s parents.
He said he is discussing with the Murk family what legal options they could choose to pursue against Saltzman.
Phone and email messages sent to Saltzman Tuesday requesting comment were not returned.
The appeals court judges based their opinion on a 1996 Maryland law that prohibits an adult from “knowingly and willfully” allowing an individual to possess or consume alcohol at the adult’s residence.
The court applied the law to a Howard County case in which Linda Stapf, 54, was being sued by the mother of Steven Dankos, 17, who was killed in 2009 while riding in the bed of a pickup truck that crashed after leaving a party held in the garage of Stapf’s Ellicott City house. Stapf was home at the time and knew that the driver of the truck—David Erdman, who was 22 at the time—as well as Dankos had been drinking in the garage before they left, according to court records.
In the opinion, the appeals court noted that Stapf was also informed by Erdman’s sister that she believed her brother was too drunk to drive.
When Nancy Davis, Dankos’s mother, attempted to pursue civil charges related to her son’s death against Stapf in Howard County Circuit Court, her case was dismissed when a judge ruled that Stapf wasn’t responsible for Steven Dankos’s injuries under Maryland law. In Stapf’s defense, her attorney cited Maryland case law that claimed that responsibility for an individual’s injury lay with his decision to drink, to which the court agreed.
However, the appeals court wrote the law that prohibits adults from permitting underage individuals to drink enables others to sue those adults if someone is injured and they knew an underage person was drinking at their residence.
Tim Maloney, an attorney who represented Davis in the case, hailed the opinion during an interview with Bethesda Beat Tuesday.
“It’s a historic opinion,” Maloney said. “Hopefully it will be a game-changer in dealing with the problems of teen alcohol consumption. It’s addressed to the so-called cool parents who have been serving alcohol to minors in their homes. Now those parents will face civil liability for any injury either to the minors or to any third parties they might injure on the highways.”
“It’s going to create a chilling effect on parents who otherwise had very little concern about the consequences of serving alcohol to minors because now you’re talking about millions of dollars in liability,” Maloney added.
The opinion also examined the merits of a Baltimore County case in which Brandon Phillips, who was 26 at the time, allowed his then 18-year-old colleague, Setmiyah Robinson, to drink vodka at his home in January 2011. Robinson then left in his SUV and struck a person walking her dog, Manal Kiriakos, seriously injuring her.
Kiriakos later filed a lawsuit against Phillips, alleging negligence on his part for serving Robinson. The case went to Baltimore County Circuit Court, where it was dismissed by a judge who found that liability wouldn’t extend to Phillips.
However, the appeals court in its opinion Tuesday also reversed this decision—again citing Maryland law that prohibits adults from “knowingly and willfully” allowing underage individuals to consume alcohol on their property. Both cases will now be retried in circuit court.
Grenier, the attorney representing the Murk family, said the court’s opinion will likely lead to changes that will serve as a deterrent to other adults who provide alcohol to underage individuals.
He noted that the General Assembly’s passage this spring of Alex and Calvin’s law, which was named after Murk and Li adds the possibility of a year in jail to the penalties for adults charged with knowingly allowing underage individuals to consume alcohol at their residences.
“Alex and Calvin’s law put teeth and jail time in the mix for parents who want to be quote ‘cool’ and allow their kids and other underage kids to drink,” Grenier said. “But I think this [opinion] will give them more pause. They could get socked for a lot more, a lot more than just the fine.”