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SJC rules underage party host not liable

In a unanimous decision yesterday, the state’s highest court ruled that teenagers who host underage drinking parties but do not supply the alcohol cannot be held liable in a civil lawsuit if a partygoer is injured.

The Supreme Judicial Court also cleared parents or property owners of any liability if they knew nothing of the party or played no role in providing the alcohol.

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The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the family of Rachel Juliano, who was left brain damaged when the car being driven by Christopher Dunbar, her boyfriend at the time, crashed in 2007.

Juliano and Dunbar, according to court records, had attended a party at the Wrentham home of Jessica Simpson, who was 19 at the time. They brought and drank their own alcohol, and Dunbar, then 19, went with Juliano in the car. Simpson had asked him not to drive, court records show.

Robert P. Powers, a Boston-based lawyer for Simpson and her father, Peter Simpson, said yesterday that the high court ruling was appropriate.

“Everybody involved in the case understands underage drinking is a serious problem,’’ he said. But, he argued, the issue was whether Simpson or her father, who was not home at the time of the party, should be held responsible.

“This is a tragedy,’’ Powers said, “but it was not fair to target [the Simpson family], and I think the ruling is a result of what happened.’’

A lawyer for the Juliano family could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The familyhad cited a law the state passed in 2000 that toughened criminal social host liability laws, making it a crime punishable by a jail sentence for a host to provide alcohol to someone under 21.

Neither Simpson nor her father was ever charged in state court under that law. But the Juliano family lawsuit alleged that Jessica Simpson should be held responsible in a civil court for hosting the party and that her father bore responsibly as the property owner.

The high court disagreed, citing past rulings that cleared property owners of liability in cases in which guests consumed their own alcohol.

“We are asked to enlarge the scope of social host liability under our common law by extending a duty of care to an underage host who does not supply alcohol to underage guests, but provides a location where they are permitted to consume it,’’ Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote for the court.

“We decline to do so and reaffirm that liability attaches only where a social host either serves alcohol or exercises effective control over the supply of alcohol,’’ Duffly wrote.

A second, concurring opinion further questioned how Jessica Simpson could be held accountable under a law making it a crime to provide alcohol to a minor when she, not yet 21, could not legally obtain the alcohol herself.

Lawyers for a defendant in a similar case submitted arguments supporting the Simpson defense.

Mark W. Shaughnessy, a lawyer for Matthew Dusseault, questioned how teenagers could be held legally accountable when their fellow teenagers obtain alcohol on their own.

Dusseault, of Norfolk, is a defendant in a case brought by the family of Taylor Meyer, the 17-year-old who drowned in a swamp in Norfolk in 2008 after a night of binge drinking. Meyer had alcohol at Dusseault’s home earlier in the night. Dusseault, then 18, was not accused of providing the alcohol.

“The Juliano decision applying to someone under the age of 21 is the rational, logical decision here,’’ Shaughnessy said.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at MValencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.
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