A Plain Reading of ‘Knowingly’

State Supreme Court declines to impose constructive knowledge standard for social host liability

In a decision issued Sept. 10, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a social host can only be held liable for injuries an intoxicated guest causes to another person if the host knowingly provided the underage guest a place to consume alcohol with knowledge the specific person was under age 21.

The court’s decision turned on the interpretation of the word “knowingly” in the Colorado Dram Shop Act Section 12-47- 801(4)(a)(I). House Bill 05-1183 amended the statute to impose civil liability when a social host knowingly provides a person under 21 a place to drink alcohol, in addition to liability for providing the alcohol itself. But the section begins with a general exemption from liability for social hosts providing alcohol, and knowingly providing alcohol or a place to consume it to an underage person is an exception.

In the underlying case, Jerome Przekurat sued on behalf of his son, Jared, for serious injuries he sustained from a crash as a passenger in a car driven by Hank Sieck. Sieck, then 20, had drunk a substantial amount of alcohol at a house party in Boulder hosted by defendants Christopher Torres, Samuel Stimson, Peter Stimson and Mitchell Davis. Afterward he left with Jared Przekurat and Victor Mejia, driving Przekurat’s car, and caused an accident in which Przekurat was thrown from the car.

Jerome Przekurat sued Torres, Samuel and Peter Stimson and Davis, claiming they should be held liable under the Dram Shop Act’s social host provision. Sieck did not know the hosts, and the district court record did not contain evidence that Sieck or anyone else told the hosts he was under 21.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the hosts, finding they had no actual knowledge that Sieck was under 21 and was either knowingly supplied alcohol the hosts or knowingly allowed to drink alcohol on their property. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in 2016. The Supreme Court also affirmed, concluding the Dram Shop Act’s language is unambiguous in its requirement that a social host who provides a venue to drink alcohol must have actual knowledge that a particular guest is underage to be liable for any damage or injury that guest causes.

The opinion referenced a 1994 Court of Appeals precedent, Dickman v. Jackalope, Inc., which the Supreme Court determined the lower appeals court correctly relied on. The Court of Appeals in Dickman determined the Dram Shop Act’s plain language indicates that “willfully and knowingly” for a liquor licensee’s liability applies to both the licensee’s mental state regarding the sale or service of alcohol and also to their knowledge of a purchaser’s age. The word “willfully” was removed when the legislature amended the statute in 2005.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the September 10, 2018 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.