Teen Drinking Can Be a Big Adult Problem

Underage drivers who are intoxicated are 17 times more likely to be in a fatal car crash — and even if they aren’t, you could be liable for giving them (or their friends) alcohol. Here’s what you should know about underage drinking and your responsibility for it.

Whether it’s because of peer pressure, rebellion or a desire to feel like an adult, underage drinking is unfortunately not an anomaly. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 1 in 5 kids between the ages of 12 and 20 say they’ve recently consumed alcohol.

For teenagers not versed in recognizing the extent of alcohol’s impact on motor skills, drinking can cause more than a hangover. About 1 in 10 teens in high school drinks and drives, according to the CDC. And underage drivers are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash if they have a blood alcohol concentration of .08% versus driving sober.

Providing alcohol to minors — or making it easy for them to access it — can result in a variety of unpleasant outcomes, from fines to lawsuits to jail time. If you have teens, impress upon them that having their friends drink in your home is not only dangerous, but puts you and your family at great risk.

With the excitement of homecoming events, football games and Halloween parties, October sees the highest number of teen driving fatalities, followed closely by July, when students are out of school and warm weather encourages parties and beach days.

Texas minors, who tested positive for alcohol, were involved in the most fatal crashes.

Locations with consistently warm weather, like Texas and California, also see the most accidents. Texas minors were most likely to be involved in a fatal crash where the driver (between ages 12-20) tested positive for alcohol in their system. The amount of fatal crashes that occurred in Texas was nearly equivalent to that of California (27) and Louisiana (18) combined.

RankState# Fatal Crashes where driver tested positive for alcohol

Beyond the trauma of seeing your kid injured, underage drinking can impact parents as well. The age at which someone can purchase alcohol in all U.S. states is 21, however according to the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey from the University of Michigan, the majority of high school seniors (87%), sophomores (72%) and 8th graders (53%) report that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” for them to get alcohol. And 54% of underage drinkers say they got their alcohol from family and friends.

In legal terms, and although the law varies by location, it’s illegal in many states to provide alcohol to a minor. If it’s found that you gave a minor alcohol or purchased alcohol for them, or even allowed them to drink it at your home, you could be fined or face a misdemeanor. If circumstances are more serious —that minor drives under the influence and injures himself or others, for instance — you could even be charged with a felony.

What’s social host liability?

Some states have “social host liability” laws, in which a person who hosts an event with alcohol could be held responsible if one of their guests drinks too much and gets into an accident following the event. How someone is liable will depend on the state.

Consider, for instance, a scenario in which Connie throws a party and invites Lisa over. Connie provides wine, and Lisa has too much of it over the course of the evening. Lisa later drives home, gets on a divided highway going the wrong way, and collides with a driver (Joe) in another car, who is injured.

Joe will always be able to sue Lisa, who was driving the car. But in many states, he may also be able to sue Connie for providing the alcohol to Lisa. In some states, Connie may not be liable unless Lisa is a minor. In other states, Connie could be liable if she knew (or should have known) that Lisa had had too much to drink and that she was going to drive home.

If Lisa is a minor, she, too, (or her parents), can sue Connie for providing the alcohol that resulted in the accident. If Lisa is an adult, she likely cannot file a lawsuit against Connie.

But I’m not actively providing alcohol to minors. What could possibly happen?

Here are a few situations that could result in liability, depending on where you live.

Scenario: You host a party at which both adults and underage minors are present, and there is alcohol being served. You tell your teenage children that under no circumstances are they or their minor friends to drink the alcohol at the party, but unbeknownst to you, one of your teen’s friends sneaks some vodka, has too much to drink and has a bad accident on the way home. Result: Although you didn’t encourage minors to drink at your party, you provided the alcohol, and you could be held liable for furnishing alcohol to a minor and for any damages and medical bills that follow.

Scenario: Your teen has friends over and they’re drinking alcohol, and you know they’re drinking alcohol, but you’re looking the other way because it’s safer if they drink at your house, right? One of the teens gets pulled over by a police officer on the way home and is found to be intoxicated. Result: You could be liable for providing alcohol to a minor. This could result in a fine or a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the state.

Scenario: You leave town, and your usually responsible teen throws a party at your home at which other teens drink the beer you have in your basement. One of the teens leaves the party drunk, runs a red light and hits another car, injuring the other driver. Result: In some states, you could be liable for not taking sufficient steps to prevent underage drinking, and for any subsequent damages to the underage driver and her vehicle, and for any damages to the third party involved in the accident.

Scenario: Your underage teen holds a party at your home while you’re not home, and other teens bring their own beer and drink it there. One of those teens gets into an accident while driving home after drinking. Result: This may depend on the state, but if guests bring their own alcohol to your home, you may not be liable under “social host” rules because you aren’t providing the alcohol.

Are those the only consequences?

Although lawsuits are a big concern, being involved in an underage drinking offense can also result in jail time or a suspended driver’s license for the involved adult. Your homeowner’s insurance could go up. You could end up paying for hospital bills, property damage, and there is the cost of emotional suffering. And, the worst-case scenario, someone could be seriously injured or die.

Why you should check the laws in your state?

Alcohol laws vary from state to state, and what could get you charged with a misdemeanor in one state could very well be legal in another. In Missouri, for instance, it’s legal for a parent or guardian to provide alcohol to a minor child, but there are penalties for hosting a party with underage drinking. In West Virginia, you can provide alcohol to a minor you’re related to by blood or marriage. In Florida, it’s illegal to provide alcohol to minors in any situation.

Blood alcohol content limits for those under 21 also vary by state. In Utah and North Carolina, for instance, there is no acceptable BAC over zero for an underage driver. In California, it’s 0.01. In Iowa, it’s 0.02.

How to protect yourself

The best way to protect yourself is to not provide minors with opportunities to drink alcohol — and that requires some vigilance. Many states define “furnishing” alcohol to minors as not just prohibiting them from drinking it or having alcohol available in the house but failing to make it difficult for minors to get access.

There is potential for your homeowners insurance to kick in if you’re deemed liable for an alcohol-related incident. It’s a good idea to call your insurer and ask specifically about what they’d cover in a liquor lawsuit situation, but generally speaking, your homeowners liability coverage is meant to cover incidents where a guest is injured (or injures someone else) and you’re found to be at fault. In cases of an auto accident that’s linked to you, your auto insurance may step in, but this is case-by-case.

A caveat: If the incident is serious enough that you face criminal charges, or your actions are found to be intentional, your homeowners insurance may not cover this. Additionally, homeowners and renters insurance may not cover punitive damages awarded in a lawsuit.

It’s smart to have umbrella coverage, which is a liability policy that kicks in once the liability coverage of your home and/or auto policies have been exhausted. You may need to purchase your homeowners and auto insurance from the same company in order to purchase one, but you can generally get $1 million in coverage for about $150 to $300 per year, and another million for about $75 more.

Full country ranking, fatal crashes where the minor driver tested positive for alcohol.

RankState# Fatal Crashes where minor driver tested positive for alcohol
9South Carolina11
10North Carolina10
13New Mexico6
15West Virginia4
15New York4
15North Dakota4
16New Hampshire3
16New Jersey3
18Rhode Island1
18South Dakota1
Washington DC, Vermont, Wyoming did not report crash statistics.


We collected data on the number of drivers of ages 12 to 20 that were fatality injured in a car accident and tested positive for any alcohol, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, by state to complete our national ranking. The most current year data was available is through 2017.

The information in this article is accurate as of the date of publishing.

Callie McGill

Callie is a Content Marketing Research Analyst at ValuePenguin, with a focus on insurance.

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.