Why You Can’t Be the Cool Parent at Prom or Graduation Parties: Understanding South Carolina’s Stance on Social Host Liability

Prom  and graduation season is an exciting time for teenagers, filled with anticipation, glamour, and often, a desire for freedom and fun. For parents, it can be a challenging time too, especially when it comes to ensuring their child’s safety while still allowing them to enjoy this rite of passage.

When it comes to alcohol, some parents have adopted the mentality of “Kids are going to drink,” so providing alcohol to them in a controlled environment, such as a home or hotel room, is safer for teenagers than letting them drink elsewhere. This notion, often referred to as the “Cool Parent” mentality, is not only flawed but also dangerous. Research has consistently shown that underage drinking is associated with a myriad of negative consequences, including impaired judgment, increased risk of accidents and injuries, academic problems, and even long-term health issues. Additionally, providing alcohol to minors not only condones illegal behavior but also undermines efforts to promote responsible drinking habits and prevent alcohol-related harm among young people.

Furthermore, no matter how well-intentioned you may be, being the “cool parent” who serves alcohol to minors at a prom or graduation party is not only a bad idea—in South Carolina, it’s illegal and exposes those parents to substantial civil liability.

 

Social Host Liability: A Strict Standard
Social host liability refers to a legal doctrine that holds an individual responsible for injuries or damages caused by an intoxicated minor if they knowingly served or facilitated the serving of alcohol to that minor.

In South Carolina, if you’re hosting a prom or graduation party at your own home, with the best of intentions, if an underage person consumes alcohol and subsequently causes harm to themselves or others, you can be held liable.

 

Criminal & Civil Alcohol Liability in South Carolina: The Relevant Law
Under South Carolina Code of Laws §§ 61-4-90 and 61-6-4070, it is unlawful for any person to knowingly and willfully provide alcohol to a person under the age of twenty-one who are not the adult’s children. These statutes apply not only to commercial establishments but also to private residences and gatherings. In other words, as a parent or a homeowner, you can be held legally responsible for providing alcohol to minors at your home, even if you did not personally supply it. Depending on the severity of the violation, punishment upon conviction may include jail time.

In addition to criminal penalties, South Carolina also allows for civil lawsuits to be filed against social hosts who provide alcohol to minors. This means that if an underage person is injured or causes injuries or property damage after consuming alcohol you provided, you could be sued for monetary damages. These damages may include medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages. The liability can be significant and may far exceed the penalties of any criminal charges.

An important case illustrating civil liability for social hosts is Marcum v. Bowden, 372 S.C. 452, 643 S.E.2d 85 (2007), where the South Carolina Supreme Court clearly held that social hosts can be held liable for injuries resulting from the provision of alcohol to minors. In Marcum, citing public policy concerns, the Court emphasized the importance of deterring adults from providing alcohol to underage individuals and recognized the potential for harm that arises from such conduct.

The creation of civil liability via our case law underscores the seriousness with which South Carolina addresses the issue of underage drinking and social host liability. The law is clear: Parents and homeowners have a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of minors on their premises, and providing alcohol to underage individuals is a violation of that duty.

 

The “What About” Scenarios
What if the parents are not the ones providing the alcohol, but merely allowing it to be consumed on their property? Even in such cases, South Carolina law holds homeowners accountable. A recent well-publicized case involving minors drinking at a Lowcountry oyster roast, which resulted in a sizeable settlement by the homeowners, illustrates this point. The rationale behind this is simple: By allowing underage drinking to occur on their premises, homeowners are effectively condoning and facilitating illegal behavior, thus contributing to the potential for harm.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that liability for underage drinking extends beyond just the homeowners themselves. Individuals who are of legal drinking age but provide alcohol to minors at a party or gathering can also be held responsible under South Carolina’s laws. This means that even if a parent did not directly supply alcohol to underage attendees, if they are aware of its presence and fail to take action to prevent its consumption, they can still face legal repercussions.

 

What Does This Mean for Prom?
The message is unequivocal: Don’t be tempted to provide alcohol to your child or their friends for prom or graduation, even if the gatherings seem carefully controlled. The risks, from serious accidents to criminal charges, are simply too high. Scenarios that seem innocent enough can quickly turn dangerous:

  • Pre-prom or graduation celebrations: Even if you think the teens will stay at your house, they may sneak out, get behind the wheel after drinking, and cause an accident.
  • After-parties: Exhaustion from a late night of partying mixed with alcohol can impair judgment and lead to reckless behavior. Even if you think a minor will stay the night, they may still attempt to drive home under the influence.

 

The Burden of Responsibility
As a parent, you have the primary responsibility to ensure your child’s safety. Beyond legal consequences, you have a moral obligation to do everything in your power to prevent underage drinking. If an underage person gets hurt because they drank at your home, the weight of that will rest on your shoulders. It’s more than just a matter of whether you get fined or charged, it’s the devastation you would likely feel knowing the situation could have been avoided in the first place.

 

Alternatives for a Fun and Safe Prom
Don’t worry, your teen can still have a memorable prom or graduation without the dangers of alcohol.

Focus on these positive alternatives:

  • Plan Alcohol-Free Activities: Plan alcohol-free events instead, such as a fancy dinner, games night, limo or party bus rentals, or a trip to an amusement park.
  • Talk It Out: Openly communicate with your teen about the dangers of underage drinking. Set clear expectations and offer support for navigating potential peer pressure.
  • Collaborate With Other Parents: Get a network of other responsible parents together for chaperoning and planning safe, supervised activities.

It may not make you the “cool parent” in the traditional sense, but choosing safety over popularity is the ultimate act of a caring and responsible parent.

 

Conclusion
The notion of being the “cool parent” who allows underage drinking at prom or graduation parties is not only irresponsible but also illegal in South Carolina. The state’s laws regarding social host liability leave no room for ambiguity—providing alcohol to minors, whether directly or indirectly, is a violation of the law and can have serious consequences. As parents and members of the community, it is our duty to prioritize the safety and well-being of our youth, even if it means saying no to being the “cool parent” for parties.

About Christian Stegmaier
Senior Shareholder

Christian Stegmaier is a shareholder and chair of the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group at Collins & Lacy in Columbia. He is also active in the firm’s professional liability and appellate practices. Stegmaier welcomes your questions at (803) 255-0454 or cstegmaier@collinsandlacy.com.