Underage Hosts In NJ May Be Liable To Drunk Driving Victims
By Sarah Jarvis
September 17, 2020
The New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday found that an underage adult who hosted his friends at his parents’ home before a drunk guest drove off from the house and caused a fatal crash may be held civilly liable to the estate of the deceased victim.
The court upended an appellate decision that affirmed the dismissal of a third-party suit against then-19-year-old Mark Zwierzynski, who hosted his friends while his parents weren’t home. Brandon Tyler Narleski, then also 19, was killed in an accident caused by then-20-year-old Nicholas Gomes, who had driven away from Zwierzynski’s home with a blood alcohol concentration that was twice the legal limit.
Justice Barry T. Albin, writing for the court, said an underage host who facilitates underage drinking has a duty to not allow a visibly intoxicated guest to have alcohol and to take reasonable steps to prevent a drunk guest from operating a motor vehicle.
“The imposition of such a duty is consonant with basic notions of fairness and sound public policy,” Justice Albin said.
The court said that even though Zwierzynski did not own the house, he held sway over those who entered it. And because he permitted underage guests to bring beer and vodka into the house for drinking, he should have had some “concomitant responsibility” to monitor the guests’ activities.
After leaving Zwierzynski’s home in November 2014, Gomes lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a concrete road divider. Narleski was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene, according to the opinion.
Narleski’s parents filed a wrongful death action against Gomes, Gomes’ parents and Amboy Food Liquor and News – also known as Krauszers Food & Liquor Store – where Narleski purchased the alcohol. In turn, Amboy filed a third-party complaint against Zwierzynski, seeking contribution under the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Act and alleging that he negligently supervised his guests.
Narleski’s parents settled their claims against Gomes, his parents and Amboy. Gomes pled guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide and was sentenced to a seven-year prison term.
The trial court had found that Zwierzynski owed no legal duty to Narleski because of Gomes’ intoxication, and it dismissed Amboy’s suit against Zwierzynski. An appellate court later affirmed the dismissal of the complaint against Zwierzynski and exonerated him from civil liability for the death of Narleski.
But the appellate court also set forth a new prospective rule holding that an adult who is under the legal drinking age “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.”
Zwierzynski argued before the state high court that the appellate court erred in imposing that new common law duty on underage adults, saying the rule would not deter underage drinking and would instead drive underage alcoholic get-togethers to less secure places.
The high court said in a footnote that while it may seem odd that Zwierzynski appealed a decision in his favor, “because of his status as a party in this case, he is the only person in a position to challenge what he claims is the erroneous imposition of a duty on similarly situated future litigants.”
But the store argued that the appellate court didn’t go far enough, saying it erred by not applying its new rule to this case.
“Amboy argues that if the common law duty to refrain from making one’s home available and facilitating the excessive use of alcohol does not apply here, then the law has carved out a liability-free zone for underage adult hosts who throw parties, permit their underage adult friends to become intoxicated, and allow them to drive and negligently injure and kill third parties,” Justice Albin summarized.
The state Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision, vacated the order of summary judgment dismissing Amboy’s claim against Zwierzynski and remanded the case for consistent proceedings.
“An underage adult, by law, may sue and be sued, may drive a motor vehicle, and has the same civil obligations as any other citizen. He too is bound by the social compact,” the high court said. “His age does not make him immune from legal responsibility for the violation of an established duty that is intended to protect others from foreseeable harm.”
A lawyer for the store, Mark R. Scirocco of the Law Offices of Robert A. Scirocco, said he was pleased with the ruling.
“Adults between the ages of 18-21 do not operate in a ‘liability-free’ zone when hosting underage drinking parties in their homes,” Scirocco said.
Counsel for Zwierzynski did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Justices Stuart Rabner, Jaynee LaVecchia, Anne M. Patterson, Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina and Lee A. Solomon joined the opinion.
The store is represented by Robert A. Scirocco and Mark R. Scirocco of the Law Offices of Robert A. Scirocco.
Zwierzynski is represented by Russell Macnow.
The case is Estate of Brandon Tyler Narleski v. Nicholas Gomes, case number 083169, in the New Jersey Supreme Court.