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Kelly v. Gwinnell

Melissa A. Hale

ProfessorMelissa A. Hale

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Kelly v. Gwinnell

Citation. Kelly v. Gwinnell, 96 N.J. 538, 476 A.2d 1219, 1984)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Zak provided Gwinnell with alcoholic beverages and then allowed him to drive home. Gwinnell was involved in a head on collision with Kelly on his way home. Kelly sued Gwinnell and Zak for negligence. The trial court granted Zak’s motion for summary judgment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Social hosts who allow guests to become intoxicated and then drive, may be liable for injuries caused by the guest’s negligent drunk driving.


Two of the Defendants were Zak and Gwinell (Defendants). Gwinnell drove Zak to Zak’s home, where Gwinell consumed alcoholic beverages. Zak walked Gwinnell to his car, where he chatted with him and watched him drive off. On his way home, Gwinnell was involved in a head on collision with the Plaintiff, Kelly (Plaintiff), who was seriously injured. Plaintiff sued the Defendants. The trial court granted Zak’s motion for summary judgment, ruling as a matter of law that a host is not liable for the negligence of an adult social guest who has become intoxicated at the guest’s house. The appellate court affirmed.


Is a host who serves liquor to a guest, knowing that the guest is intoxicated and will be operating a motor vehicle, liable for injuries inflicted on a third party when the injuries are a result of negligence and the negligence is caused by the intoxication?


Yes. Judgment reversed and remanded.
* Tortfeasors are generally held liable for injuries that occur in the ordinary course of events from their negligence if the negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries. Zak provided his guest with liquor, knowing the guest would be driving later. Viewing the facts most favorably for the plaintiff (in light of the summary judgment motion) it is reasonable to conclude that Zak continued to serve Gwinnell after he was becoming visibly drunk. A reasonable person in Zak’s position could foresee that unless he stopped providing Gwinnell with alcoholic beverages, Gwinnell was likely to injure someone while operating his car.
* The remaining question is if this Court should impose a duty to prevent such a risk. Although imposing a duty may interfere with accepted standards of social behavior, this Court believes that the just compensation of drunk driving victims along with its deterrent effect outweigh the opposing policy considerations.


This type of liability imposition is best left up to the legislature. Unlike commercial licensees who serve alcoholic beverages, average social hosts have less knowledge in determining levels of intoxication, don’t always serve guests directly, and have no insurance to spread the cost of liability. Additionally, it is not clear from the majority’s decision to what length a host must go to prevent an intoxicated guest from driving.


The majority’s decision to impose a duty on social hosts was based both on fairness and policy considerations.

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