Trying to have a party on a budget, albeit an underage party with alcohol, the host required a cover charge to help cover the costs of the party. Both the trial court and the Court of Appeal agreed that this was not a sale of alcohol, making the social host immune from liability for the actions of the drinkers. However, in Ennabe v. Manosa, the California Supreme Court reversed both lower courts; holding instead that a host charging an entrance fee which entitles guests to alcoholic is a sale. As a result, this falls into an exception to the general immunity and the host is potentially liable for selling alcohol to an obviously intoxicated minor. This is true whether or not she required a liquor license, since she would still qualify as “any other person” who sells alcohol. (Bus. & Prof. Code §25602.1.) While the Court initially stated that it was only reversing summary judgment based on a question of fact on the existence of a sale, the opinion is not so limited.
In this case, Manosa was hosting a mostly underage party at an empty rental house and charged an entrance fee to any unknown guest to help pay for drinks. The money collected was later used to buy more drinks. One underage guest, Garcia, arrived intoxicated, paid an entrance fee, and reportedly drank more at the party. Ennabe was a friend of Manosa, and so apparently did not pay, but was also intoxicated. Garcia became obnoxious and was asked to leave, and an altercation between Ennabe and Garcia’s friends on their way out ended when Garcia struck Ennabe with his car, killing him. Defendant won a summary judgment and the Court of Appeal affirmed. (See, our blog entry when the Supreme Court initially granted review here.)
After a detailed history of alcohol related immunities in California, the Court followed the definition in the Alcohol Beverage Control Act that any transaction involving any consideration for alcohol constitutes a sale, regardless of the intent behind the fee. As such, the Court found that this exception to immunity extends to a private person who, for whatever reason, charges a fee for drinks, even if only as a cover charge, regardless of whether the host is part of any commercial enterprise or has any intention to profit. The Court expressed confidence that this holding would not interfere with the wide variety of social and commercial settings in which alcohol is provided (gallery openings, political fundraisers, etc.). In any case, it found no reason to be concerned about extending liability to anyone selling alcohol to an intoxicated minor.
While not addressed in this opinion, there is an underlying coverage issue which may ultimately need to be addressed. It is interesting to note that Manosa’s parents were unaware that she was throwing this party. It is also unknown whether the applicable premises policy terms assumed that the immunity provisions for social hosts would apply. An exclusion regarding commercial or business activities may provide little protection to the insurer, given the apparent evidence that this was not a commercial enterprise, but merely an attempt to defray party costs. Presumably, this opinion will inspire premises insurers to review their policy terms to confirm that this opinion does not create unexpected exposure.