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Maryland parents who host parties where teens get drunk now face civil suits

So-called "cool parents" who knowingly let teens host boozy parties at their homes now run the risk of being sued if an underage drinker gets hurt or hurts someone else, Maryland's highest court ruled Tuesday.

The Court of Appeals has generally been reluctant to hold third parties such as bar owners responsible for the actions of drunken people, but said in Tuesday's opinion that the law ought to be different when children are involved.

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"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 D. Adkins wrote for the court.

For two decades, it has been a crime in Maryland for adults to allow underage drinking at their homes. Tuesday's ruling adds another potential layer of legal accountability for parents who let teens get drunk and brings Maryland into line with at least 31 states that have similar laws covering civil cases.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the two cases covered by the Court of Appeals opinion called it a groundbreaking step, and activists against underage drinking said the ruling will help dissuade adults from providing alcohol to minors.

"The criminal penalty has been on the books for a while, and it still happens," said Adam P. Janet, an attorney for a plaintiff in one of the cases. "This is one more disincentive."

In 2013, the controversy over how parents should approach their teenage children's interest in drinking engulfed Maryland's then-attorney general, Douglas F. Gansler. The Baltimore Sun obtained pictures of Gansler at a rented vacation house in Delaware, surrounded by teens in the middle of a raging party. He initially said he had no reason to intervene, but later said he had handled the situation poorly.

While some parents might think they are keeping teens safer by letting them drink at home where adults can keep an eye on things, Lisa Spicknall, director of the Maryland branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the group believes alcohol abstinence for underage people is the only safe approach.

"Reality shows that children die each and every day in impaired driving crashes caused by underage drinkers leaving parties that are hosted by parents," she said.

The Maryland court's ruling covered two similar cases. The first, from Howard County, involved 17-year-old Steven Dankos, who got drunk at a party at a friend's house in 2009 and then got a ride in a pickup truck with a 22-year-old man who also was drunk. The driver got into a crash and Dankos was killed.

Dankos' mother sued Linda Stapf, the woman in whose home the party was held. According to court documents, Stapf's house was known among students at River Hill High School as a "party house" and teens went there to drink almost every weekend.

Timothy F. Maloney, a lawyer for Dankos' mother, said his client wanted to discourage other parents from holding parties for underage drinkers.

"This has become almost an epidemic in some areas of the state," Maloney said. "I think this is really going to change the social consciousness of parents throughout the state."

The other case, from Baltimore County, was brought by Manal Kiriakos, a woman who was out walking her dogs when she was hit by an 18-year-old who had been drinking at the home of a man he worked with. Kiriakos suffered severe injuries that required spinal surgery and left her in severe pain, according to her attorneys.

"The Court of Appeals recognized what we all know: Individuals that are underage lack the judgment and competence to decide whether to drink," said Janet, who represented Kiriakos.

The Court of Appeals rulings are not the final verdict in the two cases. The judges sent both back to the trial courts for further consideration. Lawyers for the defendants in the cases could not be reached for comment.

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The issue of who can be held responsible when a drunken person gets into an accident or hurts someone has come before the court in other contexts. The Court of Appeals recently ruled that bar owners generally cannot be sued over the actions of their drunken customers.

Adkins wrote that normally the court follows the rule that people, whether they're drunk or sober, are responsible for their own conduct. "But this rule does not extend to the circumstances here — an underage person consuming alcohol on the adult's property with the adult's complicity," she wrote.

The appeals judges looked to the wording of the criminal law against hosting underage drinkers, which prohibits adults from "knowingly and willfully" letting drinking go on. The judges concluded that the same standard should apply in civil suits, so parents whose children sneak into their home with alcohol would likely not be held responsible in court.

The criminal law also has an exception for people who let members of their family drink at home. While that issue did not come up in the cases considered by the appeals court, it is likely that the caveat would also apply in civil cases, lawyers said.

Steve Klepper, an attorney who runs a blog covering the Court of Appeals, noted that the new ruling sticks closely to the language in the criminal law. Klepper said that means it probably will not open up avenues for people who provide alcohol under other circumstances to be found responsible in civil cases.

"At a gut level, it feels like a departure from earlier cases that have refused to recognize liability for bars," he said. "But on the other hand, the court was able to limit its rationale."

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