Court holds violent acts "aren't foreseeable result of illegally serving alcohol" and "willful ignorance" of illegal consumption does not constitute "actual knowledge."
In one of the most disappointing examples of political, activist, result-oriented, injudicious decision-making we have witnessed in 30-plus years of lawyering, the Court of Appeals held in Uplinger v. Howe, et al., that homeowners who hosted an alcohol-laced party for "75-100" guests after their son's junior prom owed no responsibility for grave injuries suffered by one of the attendees. The 19-year old plaintiff suffered a severe head injury after he was beaten by an intoxicated 24-year-old wielding a baseball bat. The two "boys" had been involved in a verbal altercation earlier in the night--in the Defendants' polebarn--and the attacker, Jeffrey Howe, returned with companions and weapons to attack the plaintiff, Uplinger.
Uplinger sued the attacker and the party hosts, Thomas and Salli Grabman, after being hospitalized at St. Mary's Hospital Brain Trauma ICU and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. The homeowners made the rather incredible claim that they had no idea that alcohol was being consumed at the party. Homeowner Salli Grabman claimed that she knew nothing of the party plans and had left the house before it started; Thomas Grabman testified he slept through the party.
The appellate judges first dredged up an older case, exercising suspect logic, that suggested that illegally serving alcohol may foreseeably cause motor vehicle collisions, but it does not make "violent or criminal" behavior legally foreseeable as a result. Literally, no one with a background in criminal justice, medicine, psychology or psychiatry would agree with this suggestion.
The judges went on to note that the plaintiffs "make a compelling circumstantial case that perhaps the Grabmans were aware that alcohol would be served at the party" with "potential" evidence of prior Grabman parties where minors were served alcohol. The Court further noted the suspect credibility of Mr. Grabman's claim that he "slept through" a party with nearly one hundred high school-aged attendees. Nevertheless, it held that his "willful ignorance" of the activities involving minors on his property was sufficient to immunize him from illegal conduct.
Startlingly, the Court held that "plaintiff does not point to a single witness who would testify that Mr. Grabman actually made an appearance at the party and observed the alcohol. Thus, at best, plaintiff can make a showing of willful ignorance rather than actual knowledge." Never in 30 years have we read an opinion that would legally excuse illegal behavior as "willful ignorance."
The Court published this conclusion despite recognizing that under the law, "knowingly allowing" minors to consume alcohol includes "any form of conduct, including a failure to take corrective action, that would cause a reasonable person to believe that permission or approval has been given." The court went on: "[N]othing [in the statute] imposes an obligation to investigate a suspicion that underage drinking is occurring, no matter how well-founded such a suspicion might be."
What a disappointing judicial opinion.