With the holiday season fast approaching, many of us are planning to attend or host holiday parties with family, friends or co-workers. These events are meant to be a joyous time of celebration, often involving alcohol served to adults and unfortunately, sometimes underage guests. Such celebrations can lead to an increased number of drunk drivers on the road as well as an increase in the number of alcohol-related crashes and deaths.

In 2012, there were 12,066 alcohol-related traffic crash injuries and 877 alcohol-related traffic crash fatalities in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. This includes 1,053 alcohol-related crashes and 44 fatal alcohol-related crashes involving drivers under the age of 21. Alcohol-related crashes consistently account for more than one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in Florida. These numbers spike toward the end of the year when there are often more drivers, and unfortunately more drunk drivers, on the road.

Given these statistics, it is important for hosts and guests alike to be mindful of how their actions may result in legal liability. This is particularly important to consider when it comes to the consumption of alcohol by party guests, especially underage ones, and in ensuring that everyone gets home safely.

Floridians may be unaware that Florida law imposes a duty on social hosts with regards to the consumption of alcohol by guests. Known as the “Open House Party” law, Florida Statutes section 856.015 makes it a crime for any person 18 years or older to host an “open house party,” which is defined as any social gathering at a home, apartment, condominium or other dwelling unit, if “the person knows that an alcoholic beverage or drug is in the possession of or being consumed by a minor at the residence and where the person fails to take reasonable steps to prevent the possession or consumption of the alcoholic beverage or drug.” It is important to note that a “minor” for purposes of the “Open House Party” law is anyone under the legal drinking age of 21.

Any person who violates the statute may be charged with a second degree misdemeanor. If the violation results in serious bodily injury or death to the consuming minor, or to a third party as a result of the minor’s consumption, the host may be charged with a first degree misdemeanor.

While these charges may result in relatively minimal criminal penalties to the host, Florida law does allow a social host to be sued by anyone injured as a result of a minor’s intoxication (either by alcohol or illegal drugs). In addition to specific "social host" liability imposed when minors consume drugs or alcohol at someone's home, the law also imposes responsibility for injuries caused by allowing an intoxicated guest (adult or minor) to drive one's car. In addition, a host or partygoer who undertakes to assist an injured, ill or intoxicated guest may be sued and held liable for later abandoning the injured, ill or intoxicated guest, if the abandoned guest suffers any injury. These are just a few examples of claims that victims may attempt to bring against those who serve minors (or in some cases, adults) alcohol at their homes.

This may be news to many Florida homeowners and regular hosts of social gatherings. It may also be news to college students who have attended or hosted a number of college parties where underage students are served alcohol without ever considering the possibility that the students hosting the party (if over the age of 18) may be held liable for any injury to, or caused by, their underage guests’ drinking. So what can we learn from this? Here are a few tips for social hosts and guests to ensure everyone’s safety during the upcoming holiday party season.

1. Provide alternative drink options for underage guests, and don’t serve alcohol to guests under the age of 21.

2. Don’t turn a blind eye to underage consumption. Instead, be proactive when you see something suspicious from your underage guests.

3. If you see or suspect that underage guests are drinking or using drugs do everything possible to end it immediately, including disposing of alcohol or drugs in any underage person’s possession, calling parents and taking away the keys of any underage guests who may have driven to the party. The law is designed to ensure the safety of your minor guests and that is, of course, your primary concern too.

4. Educate your underage children about the dangers of drinking and driving and the “Open House Party” law.

5. While the law may not specifically impose liability on a social host for serving guests who are over the age of 21, take steps to ensure the safety of your adult guests too. Call a cab or advise guests to take advantage of AAA’s free holiday Tow to Go program, or similar options.

We all want to avoid becoming a statistic. Drunk driving puts you and other drivers and pedestrians in danger. Do not drive or permit any other person to drive your vehicle while impaired. Always have a designated driver. If you don’t have a designated driver, call a cab or AAA.