In Kiriakos v. Phillips and Dankos v. Stapf the Maryland Court of Appeals considered two cases in which underage persons drank alcohol on an adult’s property and then left the property in a motor vehicle. In both cases, the adult property owner knew of and consented to the minor’s consumption of alcohol.
In the Dankos case, 17-year-old Steven Dankos became intoxicated during a party at Linda Stapf’s house on November 28, 2009. Steven left Stapf’s house early in the morning, still intoxicated, riding in the bed of a friend, David Erdman’s pickup truck. Erdman, who was also intoxicated, crashed the truck. Steven was ejected and killed. Earlier in the night, Stapf had come home to find a party taking place at her house. Stapf told her son Kevin that some people needed to leave, but permitted others to continue drinking in the garage, knowing that some were under twenty-one (21).
Dankos’ mother filed an amended complaint against Stapf in May 2013 alleging negligence, under the so called “Statute Rule” wherein common law social host tort liability and breach of duties arise out of violation of a Maryland criminal law statute. The statute at issue here was Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law Art. § 10-117(b), which provides that “an adult may not knowingly and willfully allow an individual under the age of 21 years actually to possess or consume an alcoholic beverage at a residence . . . in which the adult resides.” The Circuit Court for Howard County granted Stapf’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (based on the argument that Dankos failed to allege the breach of a legally cognizable duty) and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.
In the Kiriakos case, Manal Kiriakos was walking her dogs on the sidewalk early one morning when 18-year-old Shetmiyah Robinson, who had been drinking, lost control of his large sport utility vehicle and hit Kiriakos, causing her life-threatening injuries. Earlier that evening, Robinson had been working with Brandon Phillips and another man at Phillips’ house. Phillips, who was twenty-six (26), knew that Robinson was eighteen (18). Phillips knew that Robinson was too intoxicated to drive because he offered to let Robinson sleep at his place until Robinson was “able to drive.” Robinson stayed at Phillips’ house until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Robinson struck Kiriakos about one (1) hour later. Robinson’s BAC measured .088 at the scene.
Kiriakos filed an amended complaint against Phillips sounding in negligence. Kiriakos alleged that Phillips owed a duty to “the public in general,” not to provide alcohol to a minor. The Circuit Court for Baltimore County granted Phillips’ motion for summary judgment, refusing to find that Phillips owed Kiriakos a legal duty. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed.
The Court of Appeals began its discussion by holding that there exists a limited form of social host liability sounding in negligence – based on the public policy reflected in Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law Art. § 10-117(b) – but that only exists when the adults in question act knowingly and willfully.
With respect to the Dankos case, the Court began by addressing Stapf’s duty to Dankos. A duty in tort can arise from a criminal statute or ordinance. In order to establish a prima facie case in negligence under the Statute Rule, a plaintiff must meet two prerequisites: (1) show the violation of a statute designed to protect a specific class of persons, and (2) show that the violation proximately caused the injury complained of. The Court of Appeals sided with Dankos on the first prong and held that the statute is designed to protect “persons under twenty-one (21).” In order to prove the second prong, Dankos needed to have shown that Steven was within the class of persons protected by the statute, and that the harm suffered is of a kind which the drafters intended to prevent. According to the Court of Appeals, the legislative history makes clear that the statute seeks to prevent harm to underage persons as a result of their consumption of alcohol. Because Steven was seventeen (17) years old and suffered impaired judgment from his consumption of alcohol, the Court of Appeals determined that Dankos had adequately pled the second prong and had therefore adequately pled the duty and breach elements of negligence using the Statute Rule.
The Court next turned to the issue of proximate cause in the Dankos case. Proximate cause is the combination of (1) cause in fact and (2) a legally cognizable cause. When an injury arises from two or more independent negligent acts, Maryland courts apply the substantial factor causation test. With regard to this test, the Court of Appeals held:
[U]pon a finding that the social host defendant knowingly and willfully allowed a member of the protected class to consume alcohol on the host’s premises in violation of the statute, in an action against the social host, such conduct – if it substantially contributed to a diminution of the underage person’s ability to act in a reasonable manner, and thereby caused injury – can be found to be a substantial factor in bringing about harm to the underage person himself or to a third party.
As to “cause in fact,” the Court of Appeals ruled that a jury could reasonably determine that Stapf “created a force or series of forces which [we]re in continuous and active operation up to the time of the harm to Steven.” As to “legal (?) cause,” the Court of Appeals held that Dankos had alleged sufficient facts to survive a motion to dismiss – namely, that Erdman’s act of driving drunk, and injuring Steven was foreseeable to Stapf, especially because Erdman’s intoxication was specifically brought to Stapf’s attention, thus Dankos sufficiently plead proximate cause.
The Court of Appeals also held that contributory negligence is not a defense in an action by a protected class member against a social host defendant. The Court refused to construe Steven’s decision to consume alcohol voluntarily as the proximate cause of his injuries. As such, Dankos’ negligence claim survived Stapf’s motion to dismiss.
In the Kiriakos case, the Court of Appeals first addressed Kiriakos’ claim that Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law Art. § 10-117(b) includes within the class of persons it is designed to protect, members of the general public who are placed at risk by minors who have consumed alcohol. The Court of Appeals found the doctrine of negligent entrustment instructive as to whether Phillips owed Kiriakos, a third party, a duty when he enabled an underage person to consume alcohol on his property, and held that Kiriakos could maintain a limited social host cause of action against Phillips through common law tort principles. The Court supported its determination that a cognizable duty was alleged by reviewing the classic factors used to decide the existence of a duty under common law: (1) foreseeability of harm; (2) degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury; (3) closeness of the connection between defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (4) moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) extent of the burden on the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty; and (7) the cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.
As for proximate cause, the Court of Appeals concluded that a jury could reasonably conclude that Phillips’ conduct was both the cause in fact and the legal cause of Kiriakos’ injuries. The facts Kiriakos alleged, if proven, could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Phillips’ provision of alcohol to Robinson created a series of forces which were “in continuous and active operation up to the time” Robinson injured Kiriakos. A reasonable jury could also conclude that it was “more likely than not” that Phillips’ conduct was a substantial contributing factor in producing Kiriakos’ injuries. As for legal causation, the Court was primarily concerned with foreseeability. The Court of Appeals concluded that a reasonable jury could find that (1) Kiriakos’ injuries were a result of Robinson’s drunk driving; (2) Phillips could have anticipated Robinson’s negligent act because both Robinson’s substantial consumption of alcohol and the likelihood of his driving were apparent to Phillips; and (3) the accident occurred within an hour after Robinson left Phillips’ house – all of which would render Phillips’ conduct the legal cause of Kiriakos’ injuries.