A lawsuit in Minnesota will start a debate on whether adults should have responsibility for the actions of other non-relative adults. Amanda Jax died in a drinking binge on her 21st birthday, a tragedy that occasionally occurs in the US. Her parents filed an expected lawsuit against the nightclub where Jax drank, but surprisingly included Jax’s friends, who accompanied her on the binge:
The family of a woman who drank herself to death at a Mankato nightspot while celebrating her 21st birthday is suing not only the establishment but also the friends who bought her a steady stream of drinks.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Blue Earth County District Court, alleges that on Oct. 29 the college-age friends of Amanda Jax bought her one drink after another in less than two hours.
As a result, Jax’s parents are taking the unusual legal step of suing her companions, in a case that could set a precedent as to who can be held legally liable when someone drinks too much. …
Jax, the suit contends, “was in the care” of the friends who gave alcohol to “an obviously intoxicated person.” Their actions, the suit argues, “created an unreasonable risk of causing physical harm” to Jax, and the friends “failed to exercise reasonable care” in preventing harm to her.
“I don’t know how they could have called themselves friends and not done anything,” said a tearful Jenny Haag, Jax’s mother. “They helped her drink even when she wanted to quit. If people had called 911 [in time], then Amanda’s death could have been avoided.”
The death of Amanda Jax is undoubtedy a tragedy, and a senseless one at that. Too often, young men and women choose to celebrate legal access to alcohol by binging, in effect poisoning themselves with drink. Almost all of them survive it, but a few simply go too far. And one has to question why her friends didn’t consider the dangers of buying such a large amount of alcohol for a 100-pound woman and stop when she became so obviously intoxicated, and why they didn’t check on her to make sure she was recovering.
Of course, the family has our sympathy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Amanda had the responsibility for her actions. She didn’t have the alcohol forced down her throat; she drank of her own free will. In fact, the celebration that night was her transition to a fully adult status in the eyes of the community, the age when no one had Amanda in their care any longer.
The lawsuit bases much of its argument on two points: that everyone involved provided the alcohol to Jax, and that her intoxication created a situation that amounted to custody of Jax. They caused the intoxication, and they failed to meet their custodial responsibilities when she got too drunk to continue drinking. That argument creates a few potential dangers. First, there is no particular mechanism for transfer of custody, nor does it provide limits to the custody. It also imposes non-voluntary liability for the behavior of an otherwise independent adult on others. Both undermine the independence of individuals and minimize personal responsibility.
Amanda Jax should have stopped drinking on her own volition. The bar should have stopped serving her, as their licensing requires. Her friends should have acted to protect her — but that’s a moral, not a legal, liability. Ultimately, the primary actor in Jax’s death was Amanda Jax.
UPDATE and BUMP: The AOL Hot Seat poll question today is on this subject:
Be sure to vote, and keep checking back!