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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Expected to Rule on Case Involving Death of a Minor at a House Party

Late last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal in a case that may affect social host liability in Pennsylvania. In that case, a minor suffered fatal injuries at a house party in Pennsylvania. He was only 19 years old when he was served alcohol at a house party and then got on a dirt bike which belonged to the homeowner. He was thrown from the bike and killed. His mother filed a lawsuit against the homeowner alleging negligence in serving alcohol to minors. See Wolfe v. Ross.

The homeowner’s insurance company, State Farm, argued that an exclusion in the homeowner’s policy prohibited coverage. That exclusion denied coverage for any accident or injury occurring out of the use of a motor vehicle owned by the insured, i.e., the dirt bike. The trial court agreed with State Farm.

The mother appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which in a majority opinion, upheld dismissal of the case. The court found that the exclusion was valid, despite the mother’s claim that the homeowner was negligent for serving alcohol to her son, a minor. The court held that the dirt bike accident was the legal cause of death and therefore, the exclusion applied.

Related: NJ Alcohol Accident Law Update – Auto Insurance Policy Held to Apply to a House Party Alcohol/DUI Accident

Significance of This Case

Generally, homeowners in Pennsylvania may be held liable for a house party when a minor is knowingly or negligently served alcohol. This applies even if the minor gets into their car and gets into a DUI accident. The minor would have a viable claim against the homeowner, so would other individuals who were injured in the accident, i.e., a driver of another car, a passenger, a pedestrian, etc. The basis of the claim against the homeowner would be serving alcohol to a minor.

In the Wolfe case, the minor was killed when he attempted to operate the homeowner’s dirt bike, not his own dirt bike or vehicle. This is a critical difference. The homeowner’s insurance policy contained an exclusion, which applied when the injury occurred due to operation of a motor vehicle owned by the insured (homeowner). State Farm argued that because Wolfe had been operating the homeowner’s bike at the time of the accident, the exclusion applied.

The mother argued that serving alcohol was a major, concurrent cause, i.e., but for the serving of alcohol to her minor son, the dirt bike accident would not have happened. Under the concurrent causes theory, when two or more factors converge to cause an accident, each is deemed to be a legal cause. Thus, the service of alcohol triggered liability under the homeowner’s insurance policy, even though the dirt bike accident is what caused the death. In her argument to the Superior Court, the mother urged the court to adopt the concurrent causes theory, which the court declined to do. It will be interesting to see whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does. Stay tuned.

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