Carrots, Sticks, and the Liabilities of Teen Drinking

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Commentary by Atty. Richard Bieder

by Richard Bieder
The Justice Journal

February 2, 2007

Nearly each day we read a newspaper headline about a teenage driver who is maimed or killed – or who has caused the maiming or death of others in a car accident.

These accidents may involve the following factors: driving under the influence; alcohol served at a party in the home of absent parents

(or parents who are present); late night partying; losing control of a vehicle and crashing or flipping over; and speeding.

These news accounts often continue as friends mourn the loss of “the funniest friend,” “the most wonderful kid,” “the life of the party,” “the one who lit up the room,” or “the guy I’ll never forget.”

The police want it to stop. They are the ones who pick up the pieces — scraping the blood, skin, and clothing off the roads. Those who speak out say these crashes are among the saddest cases to see and to investigate – kids who lose their lives well before reaching their primes and fulfilling their potentials.

Police would rather not see these cases at all — and they wouldn’t need to if parents took more interest in what their children were doing and knew where they were at all times.

Teens are still children until they reach the age of 21. That decision was made by legislators because those under 21 cannot fully appreciate the effect alcohol has on their senses and their reaction time.

Sure, there are possible prison penalties for teenagers who drink and drive and for those who maim or kill others, and courts nowadays do not hesitate to impose such penalties. But such laws and the imposition of such penalties, while having some impact, do not seem to have significantly decreased the numbers of automobile accidents.

So, what will work?

First, change the teenager’s perception of alcohol as being cool. Impossible, you say? Nuts to you, I say! Remember how uncool it once was to wear a seat belt? Is there anyone who hasn’t recently been reminded by a brother, sister, son, daughter, granddaughter, or grandson under the age of 10 to “put on your seat belt”? Not on your life. Why? Because there has been a huge effort in elementary schools to pound the idea into children’s brains. And it worked. So there’s no

reason why it shouldn’t work on the issue of drinking, too. The road to a difficult task begins with a single step. MADD has made significant inroads, but much more must be done.

Second, change the viewpoint of parents and guardians about their own responsibility toward teenagers.

How do you do this?

Sermons at church, temple, mosque, and synagogue are of great help. Community leaders who set a good example wouldn’t be such a bad idea either. Finally, it would be wonderful if advertisers marketing alcohol showed more discretion in their commercials, and weaned off their “let’s make consumption of our product sexy and cool” ethic.

But these are only helpful carrots. Potent sticks are also critically needed. Connecticut and other states have made a good start but must go farther still.

It is a violation of Connecticut law for any person to give or sell an alcoholic beverage to a minor. However, an adult parent, guardian, or spouse of a minor may offer an alcoholic beverage so long as the minor possesses the beverage while accompanied by the adult.

Such adults violate the law if alcoholic beverages are given to a minor friend or relative of their child, ward, or spouse.

In 1986, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed a 200-year-old law which allowed adults to escape civil liability when providing alcoholic beverages to a minor. This was because sole responsibility was placed upon the minor who consumed the alcohol. The high court’s decision was based on a case titled Ely v. Murphy, citing that because teens are legally incapable of discerning the effects of alcohol, one who provides them with alcohol could be found liable to pay money damages to those injured by the conduct of an intoxicated youth. You can imagine the persuasive ability of such a huge money judgment stick; or the stick of losing one’s home in a lawsuit, for example.

Now imagine the additional sticks that the courts, legislators, and/or community leaders could begin to urge, such as the imposition of liability on the part of “away from home” or “at home” parents who don’t engage a responsible someone to watch over the conduct of their teenagers (remember the not infrequent repeats of scenes from the film “Risky Business”?).

Courts in other jurisdictions have in the past imposed such liability – and maybe Connecticut courts will do the same if the legislature does not.

The question is: do legislators only want to wring their hands, or do they really want to come to grips with this growing plague that consumes some of our state’s nascent leaders?

Richard Bieder, a partner in Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder of Bridgeport, is known throughout the country for his handling of individual and class action cases resulting from mass disasters, consumer rights, personal injuries, unfair trade practices, and commercial fraud and misrepresentation.

Bieder is listed in The Best Lawyers in America and is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate. He is a member of the National Board of Trial Advocacy and served as its president. A past president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, Bieder has served as a guest commentator on Court TV.