The day had gone just as Les Foster had planned. More than 100 friends had gathered at his private dirt track for an annual day of car racing in Gardner, Kan., where Foster's team won the prized traveling trophy. By sunset, he had retired happily to his house down the road. The peace did not last. A few hours later, Foster, who runs an auto repair shop, was jolted awake by a knock on the door. It was the police, and they wanted to know what Foster could tell them about a 17-year-old boy who had been killed on the racetrack when his intoxicated teenage friend ran over him.
With that tragic episode began a two-year legal nightmare. Foster, 43, was convicted in 2006 of allowing underage drinking on his property, even though he says he did not know that the teens had returned to the track. He was sentenced to a year's probation and ordered to deliver six speeches about underage drinking to high school students. Then the victim's family filed a civil suit against him, demanding he pay them $2.5 million. His insurance company settled for $452,000.
Foster's is an experience that more and more adults—especially parents—may encounter as a growing number of states pass laws increasing parental liability for teenage drinking. Twenty-three states have now passed "social host" laws targeting adults who allow underage drinking in their homes. And 33 states have some form of civil liability laws. "Homeowners and parents are at risk now because they don't appreciate what their kids are doing in the backyard," says Suzanne Bass, a Florida attorney who has handled these suits.
Binge drinking. Although teen drinking rates have declined significantly over the past few decades, they remain disturbingly high: More than 40 percent of college students say they binge drink. And at more than 5,000 a year, alcohol-related fatalities remain the leading cause of death among teens.
The key statistic behind the new laws, however, is that two thirds of teens get their booze from adults. Some parents provide it deliberately, believing that if they condone it in moderation, their children will be less likely to abuse it. Stanton Peele, a psychologist and addiction expert, says research bears that theory out. "It's accurate to say that not drinking at home with parents is a significant risk factor," says Peele.
But advocates of the new laws take just the opposite view. Stricter parental liability, they say, can reverse society's tacit acceptance of underage drinking just as tougher laws have changed the public's attitude toward drunk driving. "We have to get adults to understand the ways in which [they] contribute to this problem," says Richard Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia and coeditor of a 2003 study by the National Academy of Sciences that called for increased enforcement against parents. "We're not going to change social norms among kids if we don't change social norms among parents."
Heightened parental liability raises thorny questions about where the balance of responsibility and punishment should lie. Should parents be jailed for allowing teens to drink? Can the law hold adults liable if they're not even aware of the drinking? Does a zero-tolerance policy encourage worse drinking habits among teens?
Critics say this prohibitionist tack will never eliminate teen drinking and is likely to push thoughtful discussion out of the public arena. "How much more do we need to spend in order to achieve enforcement that constitutes success?" asks John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College who is leading a national campaign to lower the drinking age to 18.
Jail sentence. There is no research on whether social host laws are effective, and most adults arrested under them are siblings or friends in their 20s. Still, it is clear the penalties are falling harder on parents. In June, Elisa Kelly of Charlottesville, Va., was sentenced to 27 months in jail for hosting a drinking party for her teenage son. She bought the alcohol and thought she was protecting the kids by taking their car keys for the night. And an Illinois couple, Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell, were convicted for allowing their son to host a drinking party after which two teens died in a car crash. A judge last week sentenced Sara to probation and her husband to 14 days in jail, with time off to go to work.
Barrington, R.I., is an affluent seaside community where two teens died in drunk-driving accidents in 2005. Police there observed that more parents were allowing their children to drink at home. But they had trouble charging parents because they couldn't always prove that the parents had bought the alcohol for the teens.