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Legislating morality: rise of `social responsibility' laws

IF a modern-day Cain were to ask: ``Am I my brother's keeper?'' he would get an affirmative answer from the clergy. But now it is becoming increasingly likely he would also get one from the courts. State judges and legislators have started to shape codes which speak to public responsibility. This could give many people a healthy shove in an ethical direction.

A few years back, good Samaritan laws were framed to prod crime witnesses to intercede at the scene or come forward afterward to help apprehend lawbreakers.

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Several states, including Massachusetts, penned duty-to-intervene statutes. Admittedly, they have been difficult to enforce. And citizens' groups that focus on the plight of crime victims point out that an innocent eyewitness often may endanger himself by coming forward. Further, if the matter goes to court, a witness is sometimes afforded less protection by the system than a defendant. (New laws are being framed to shore up protections for such witnesses.)

Now another phenomenon is surfacing, one which also embraces the good Samaritan concept. It involves the liability of ``social hosts.'' In short, it holds that private citizens may be held civilly liable for serving alcohol to someone who subsequently injures another in a drunk-driving accident.

New Jersey's Supreme Court made a precedent-breaking decision in this area last spring. Now a pair of recent rulings by appellate tribunals in Indiana and Iowa have followed suit. The latter decisions are interpretations of state statutes which make it unlawful to dispense liquor to intoxicated persons.

In the Indiana case, an appeals court said that a tavern patron who bought several drinks for another customer who was already intoxicated may be liable for damages to the spouse of a man killed by that customer in an auto accident. A state statute already made Indiana bartenders legally liable for damages caused by drunken customers.

In extending liability to those who furnish alcohol to an already intoxicated person, Judge William I. Garrard pointed out that Indiana's state legislature does not distinquish between selling liquor and giving it away.

Although this particular case involved the narrow circumstances of one bar patron buying liquor for another, legal experts indicate that the ruling could be interpreted to cover ``social hosts'' in various settings, such as in the home and at office parties.

The Iowa case involved a wrongful-death suit brought by the parents of a deceased child against two brothers who served beer to a woman at a cookout. She subsequently was involved in a car accident in which the seven-year-old girl was killed. The woman, who also lost her life, allegedly was already intoxicated when she drank the beer.

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Writing for a 5-to-4 majority of Iowa's Supreme Court, Justice Harvey Uhlenhopp pointed out that the liquor dispensation law did not exempt the ``social host.'' On that basis, the court found liability for the child's death.

Defendants' lawyers in both these cases argued that the ``social host'' concept was being applied too broadly. And they said that laws of this kind were more properly within the province of legislatures, not the courts. It was noted that California and Oregon state lawmakers have already overturned similar state court decisions extending civil liability to social hosts.

It is very possible that lawmakers in Indiana or Iowa or both -- under heavy pressure from distillery and liquor interests -- may also overrule, or modify these court rulings.

However, politicians and the general public might do well to note the experience of New Jersey: Garden State law now says that someone who ``directly serves'' liquor to a guest and allows him to drive away drunk can be held liable for injuries to others.

New Jersey's state Supreme Court Justices allowed that their ruling of civil liability flew in the face of what many feel is an accepted standard of social behavior. They also noted the concern of those who oppose excessive intrusion into private lives and broad exposure of social hosts to lawsuits. But Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz said these considerations were outweighed by the need to curb drunken driving and compensate innocent victims.

Even in its first year of operation, New Jersey's ``social host'' law appears to be something of a deterrent. Many companies now ban, or strictly limit, the availability of liquor at office parties. The state's sports and exhibition authority closes its beer concessions well before the end of football games and other events to allow patrons to sober up before driving home. Some private hosts report they now collect car keys from guests as they arrive at parties where liquor is served. Inebriated guests are driven home by somebody else.

``Social host'' liability laws have not yet caught on nationwide. But the concept could have an important impact on the American public's acceptance of drinking and driving. Obviously, the two don't mix. In many nations, social mores alone deter this practice. Hopefully, the US is now moving in this direction. A Thursday column


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