Who is responsible for underage drinking?

Many teens and young adults report drinking even when they have not reached the legal age limit of 21. If a teen consumes alcohol and then causes injury to another, other individuals may bear responsibility for the actions that followed consumption.

Furnishing Alcohol 

Furnishing liquor to a child under the legal drinking age in a public setting is typically against the law unless it meets a narrow definition. This prohibition is contained within the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Each state prohibits this act; however, individual differences exist between how violations are treated. 

Exceptions to the prohibition of furnishing alcohol include providing alcohol for an established religious purpose as long as the minor is accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, for a medical purpose that a licensed physician, hospital or other providers administer, in private establishments or during lawful employment by a licensed wholesaler, manufacturer or retailer.

Individuals who violate their state’s law regarding minor in possession face criminal charges, usually a misdemeanor. This is generally characterized as a crime with a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine.

Drunk Driving

Some states have additional criminal charges that can result if an adult furnishes alcohol to a minor and the minor then gets in a car accident that results in death or serious injury. In some cases, such charges can result in a felony charge that may carry multiple years’ incarceration and a fine. 

Civil Liability

In other cases, even if a parent can evade criminal charges, he or she may face civil liability. A parent may be held legally responsible when their inebriated child causes property damage or personal injuries. Some legal theories that may have an impact on a civil claim include: 

Dram Shop Laws

Dram shop laws were originally passed to punish bars, clubs and similar establishments that monetarily benefited from a person consuming alcohol who then caused injury to another due to the intoxicated state. Such laws allowed victims of drunk driving accidents and similar run-ins to seek compensation for their medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and other damages. 

These laws usually have very specific guidelines. For example, liability may only lie in certain situations such as when the person furnishing the alcohol was obviously inebriated. Some laws specify only specific individuals who can be held liable and may exclude social hosts. 

Social Host Laws

Many states subject parents and the parents of a teen’s friend to civil liability. Eight states have social host laws that make parents liable if underage drinkers are drinking even when there is no damage to anyone. In 16 other states, parents can be held responsible if an underage drinker drinks at their home and then causes injury to another. 


A victim may allege negligence on the part of the parents in order to recover since the child likely has limited resources. One such theory is vicarious liability which can hold parents responsible for the actions of their child even if they were not directly responsible for the child’s acts. Another potential legal theory is negligent supervision which arises when a parent knows or should know that it is necessary to control the child. Under this theory, the parent can be held liable for the child’s negligent actions. This legal theory can also apply to other individuals who have control of the child, such as grandparents, guardians or others. 

If a parent is found guilty of a minor in possession crime, this information can be used as evidence of the parent’s negligence per se. This legal theory provides for the presumption that negligence was present if the person committed a certain crime and the statute was directly related to the injury. 

Many negligence cases are very fact-specific. Liability often rests on the parent’s knowledge and involvement in the drinking. Parents who did not know that their child would drink and did not keep alcohol in the home are less likely to be found negligent when compared to a parent who leaves liquor accessible to a child and knows that the child will drink and drive. 

Family Car Doctrine

One other theory that may apply in cases involving underage drinkers is the family car doctrine. If this doctrine is recognized in a state where an underage drunk driver causes an accident, the owner of the car can be held legally liable for the damage that occurred when a family member was driving if the owner knew the family member was using the car.

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