Sandra Reed’s Life Care Planning: New compelling reason not to let friends drive drunk

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your life planning questions.

Attorney Sandra W. Reed answers your

life planning questions.

This month’s Texas Bar Journal contains an article that poses the proposition that a recent Texas 14th Court of Appeals case could make social hosts – people who serve alcohol to their guests – potentially liabile if these guests leave a gathering and injure themselves or others.

The Texas Supreme Court had made clear in prior cases that social hosts could serve alcohol to their guests without fear of incurring liability for injuries occurring due to the consumption of that alcohol.

Here’s what happened. A guy named Plunkett attended a party given by the Nalls. The Nalls, concerned about their guests’ drinking, required those guests still present at midnight to spend the night at their home.  Around 2 a.m. a drunken guest attempted to leave and when Plunkett, another guest, tried to dissuade him, Plunkett was hit by the drunken guest’s car. Plunkett sued the Nalls to recover damages for his injuries.

Texas has had a law known as the Dram Shop Statute since 1987. This law allows anyone injured by an intoxicated person to sue a licensed alcohol seller who served alcohol to that person after he or she was already intoxicated.

The law did not extent liability to social hosts who served intoxicated guests, and, therefore, the court found the Nalls were not liable under the Dram Shop Statute. However, the Nalls had voluntarily attempted to keep drunken guests from driving and the court said they might be liable if they were found not to have used ordinary care in that undertaking.

You may be horrified that the Nalls, by trying to do the right thing in attempting to keep drunken friends from driving, may have opened themselves up to liability they wouldn’t otherwise have had if they had done nothing to stop the belligerent guest from driving. If so, you are in good company.

Alcohol Use Presents Special Concerns for Seniors

Seniors who serve alcohol to their peers should be aware that alcohol has a higher absorption rate in those over 65. This means the same amount of alcohol produces higher blood alcohol levels in this age group, causing a greater degree of intoxication than the same amount of alcohol would cause in younger drinkers.

Hosts should also be aware that alcohol can cause significant adverse reactions when combined with the use of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications and be cognizant that their elderly guests are likely taking some meds. Understand that, due to a reduction in blood flow to the liver and kidneys, an older person can experience a 50 percent decrease in the rate of metabolism of some medications, especially benzodiazepines.

This means that the effects  from these medications lasts longer than in a younger person. Some drugs, like Librium and valium, often produce effects for several days in seniors and this prolonged sedation, combined with alcohol, can increase the risk of driving after intake.

Avoiding Alcohol-Related Injury More Important Than Avoiding Liability

Regardless of whether the Texas Supreme Court ultimately finds liability on the part of the Nalls, or others in similar circumstances, the more important issue is how to avoid injury caused by intoxicated guests. The safest way is never to serve alcohol to guests, of course. But what if this option is not employed?

Here are some precautions that can be taken to reduce the dangers — but there are limits to each.

  1. Monitoring guests and refusing to serve those who are noticeably intoxicated helps. However, this is not a failsafe measure because persons who frequently abuse alcohol often have developed masking strategies that hide the extent of their intoxication.
  2. Shutting down the bar and serving coffee after dinner will help wake up guests, but the caffeine does nothing to reduce the blood-alcohol level or restore motor and reflex functioning impairment. Only time can do this.
  3. If guests are cooperative, having dinner or party guests spend the night works but, as experienced by the Nalls, a drunken guest may rebel and refuse to stay.
  4. Renting a van and driver to bring guests and return them home safely would work, but this can be expensive, especially if the guest list is long.
  5.  Inviting only those guests who drink responsibly is a great idea. But this isn’t foolproof either. A person who doesn’t normally overindulge might do so this one time.
  6. Demanding that guests surrender their car keys is an effective remedy, but its practicality is questionable.  How many hosts have the courage to take this assertive action? Even if the hosts overcome their reluctance to make this demand, how many guests will actually comply?
  7. Establishing a designated driver who doesn’t drink during the evening and who drives the rest of the group home can be an effective solution.

Perhaps one of the best things each of us can take the initiative to increase our own awareness of the dangers of driving after any alcohol use and generate frank discussions among friends and family members about this critical issue. Then we can obtain agreements among ourselves to avoid driving after drinking.

Sandra W. Reed is an attorney practicing in Glen Rose. She is of counsel with the elder law firm of Katten & Benson in Fort Worth.  If you have any questions, you may contact her by phone at 254-797-0211 or by email at swreed2@yahoo.com

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