Fighting underage drinking

Will irresponsible adults stop hosting teen drinking parties?

Alcohol and teens are a volatile and potentially dangerous mix. Each year, more than 4,500 Americans under age 21 die from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and similar circumstances, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The same study concludes that more than 190,000 are sufficiently injured in alcohol-related circumstances to justify a visit to a hospital emergency room.

Parents and police can't be omnipresent. At some point, one must rely on other adults not to actively and knowingly put young people at serious risk by, for instance, hosting underage drinking parties at their homes. That kind of irresponsible (and illegal) behavior ought to have serious consequences — and thanks to the Maryland Court of Appeals, it now does.

This week's ruling by the state's highest court means it's not just illegal to serve minors alcohol, but adults who engage in such behavior can also be sued for civil liability. In other words, someone who allows teens to get drunk in their backyard can not only be arrested but can be sued for damages.

That principle of civil liability is crucial because police can't be patrolling every backyard and garage in search of teens and kegs. The court now puts the onus on the party's host: If a teen gets drunk as a result and drives into a tree, the survivors can sue that adult host who should never have countenanced teen drinking in the first place.

According to advocates, at least 31 states hold adults to similar liability standards, so, if anything, Maryland's legal precedent was overdue. The two lawsuits that led to the court ruling are a reminder of the stakes involved: in one, a 17-year-old Howard County man who got drunk at a friend's house in Ellicott City subsequently died in an alcohol-involved pickup truck crash while in the other, a Baltimore County woman was severely injured by an 18-year-old driver who had been doing vodka shots at the home of an adult colleague from work.

Maryland courts have been reluctant to allow this kind of third-party liability in cases where, for example, bartenders serve obviously intoxicated adults, but teens are different. Children under age 21 can't be expected to make sound decisions about alcohol in the way expected of adults. They are, as Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote in the unanimous decision, "more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess in a social, peer-pressured setting."

No doubt there will be some parents who will complain that the decision will cause teens to be more secretive and less supervised in their underage drinking. This outlook — that adult-supervised intoxication is better than the unsupervised variety — has gained traction in certain circles. But there's little proof that it's effective, particularly in the long-term.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, use of alcohol in any quantity actually puts teens at a greater risk of future alcohol-related problems and interferes with brain development. Making alcohol more easily obtainable — which is often one of the consequences of adult-hosted parties — runs counter to the AAP guidelines. Underage drinking is also associated with increased risk of physical and sexual assault.

It's a shame that it's taken this long to establish adult civil liability for underage drinking. The court's ruling arises from a 20-year-old Maryland statute that established the serving of alcohol to minors as a crime. The General Assembly might have been more explicit about civil damages, but as often seems to happen with alcohol-related legislation in Annapolis, lawmakers have been slow to act. And even this ruling is no cure-all; it leaves open the question of whether a parent who allows underage drinking can be held liable for the actions of his or her own child, a potential loophole the legislature should close.

Adolescent drinking isn't a mere rite of passage, it's a serious public health problem. Establishing civil liability for adults who willfully serve booze to minors will help fight the epidemic, but it's far from a cure. Fortunately, there are hopeful signs like a reduction in drunk driving deaths, including for young people, in recent years. But Maryland still has a long way to go — public health studies estimate about 108,000 teens living in the state have participated in binge drinking of some kind in the last month. How many did so under adult supervision? No one knows, but thanks to the new liability standard, perhaps it will happen a lot less frequently from now on.

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