A few years ago I posted a series of stories on an important case in Illinois that presented the opportunity to address questions left open by past cases on the possible liability of social hosts for serving alcohol to their guests. That case involved the question of whether the conduct of a commercial establishment that allowed people to bring their own booze should be analyzed under principles that apply to commercial establishments that sell alcohol or the principles that apply to social (non commercial) hosts who provide free alcohol. The court avoided the question altogether by approaching the issue in a different way (one that I argued was absurd, but that is a different story you can read about here.)
The new case in California presents a mirror image of the Illinois case. The case involves a social host who asked the guests to pay a fee to defer the costs of the alcohol. While Illinois was dealing with a commercial host that did not sell alcohol, California is dealing with a social host who charges money to help pay for the alcohol. Granted, the social host was not "selling" the alcohol to any individual guest, but was using the money to pay for the alcohol that was available to all the guests.
California does not recognize social host liability unless the host, licensed or not, sells alcohol. The question in this new case is whether a "cover charge" (which in this case was $3 to $5 and which is common at college student parties) to cover the cost of the liquor, constituted a "sale of alcohol." If so, the defendant could be held liable for the wrongful death of the plaintiff's son who was killed by the drunk guest.
The Los Angeles Times has more on the story here.
UPDATE (3/23/14): The Appellate Strategist has a more on the story here.