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Morella v. Machu

Decided: September 11, 1989.

TINA A. MORELLA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
JOSEPH E. MACHU, JR., JOSEPH MACHU, MARK KAMATOY AND EDUARDO KAMATOY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

King, Ashbey and Skillman. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D

King

This case presents the question of whether parents who leave teenage children under poorly supervised circumstances where drinking parties are likely to occur in their absence may be liable for damages caused by an intoxicated underage partygoer who injures innocent victims while driving after the party. We conclude that parents may be liable under common-law principles of negligence, agency, proximate cause and foreseeability if they leave their teenagers in circumstances where improper supervision while they are absent from the home is likely to lead to social gatherings where alcohol is consumed by underage drinkers who then drive and cause injuries to innocent victims.

The Law Division judge granted a summary judgment in favor of defendants Eduardo Kamatoy and Maria Kamatoy, homeowners and parents of teenagers, on the ground that no legal duty existed under the circumstances. We return the matter to the Law Division for trial on the traditional issues of common-law negligence, agency,*fn1 foreseeability and proximate cause. We conclude that the parents had a legal duty to see that their children were properly supervised in their absence. If their teenagers were not left with proper supervision and that failure resulted in reasonably foreseeable injuries to others, the parents must respond in damages for the consequences of their oversight.

In this case we have, as did the Law Division judge, only the "barebones" allegations in the record before us. The plaintiff, Tina Morella, filed a civil action in which she claimed that on March 1, 1986 at about 1 a.m. she was a passenger in a car

operated by Donna DeVingo. The DeVingo car was involved in an accident with a car driven by 18-year old Joseph Machu in Freehold, Monmouth County. The legal drinking age in New Jersey is 21. Machu had been in attendance at a party at the Kamatoy home in Freehold earlier in the evening and was concededly intoxicated at the time of the accident.

Plaintiff Morella claimed that defendant Eduardo Kamatoy and Marie Kamatoy, his spouse, owned a home at 92 Adams Place in Freehold where they had left their three sons, ages 17, 16 and 14 under the supervision of 20-year old Paul Borromeo while they vacationed in the Bahamas for a few days. Borromeo had been hired and paid by the Kamatoys to see that all went well in their absence. The plaintiff also sued Mark Kamatoy, the 17-year old son of the Kamatoys, and Borromeo, the teenagers' alleged live-in supervisor. These two defendants also prevailed on summary judgment. Plaintiff has settled her claims against her host driver, DeVingo, and the intoxicated driver, Machu.

From the record before us, which includes depositions of the principals, we deduce that plaintiff would attempt, if permitted, to show a jury that on Friday evening, February 28, 1986, a spontaneous, "open party" developed at the Kamatoy house. The party apparently developed while Borromeo was out for the earlier part of the evening. The revelers, all teenagers, numbered somewhere between 17 and 50, according to the several estimates. There was both bottled and kegged beer at this "bring your own" party. When Borromeo returned at 11:30 p.m. he saw the party in progress and seems simply to have gone upstairs to watch television. The record contains no evidence that Borromeo did anything to either prevent or break up the party. Borromeo and the Kamatoy boys had been specifically instructed by the Kamatoy parents that there were to be no drinking parties in the house while the Kamatoys were gone.

Machu had been driven to and from the party by one of his friends. After they both had returned to his friend's home, Machu got into his own car and drove off. At about 1 a.m., while admittedly intoxicated, Machu caused the accident in which plaintiff was hurt.

We conclude that if plaintiff can prove these general factual allegations, a jury case has been made out against the parents, Eduardo and Marie Kamatoy. A jury could weigh the evidence and decide if the Kamatoy parents or their agents exercised reasonable care in the circumstance in providing for the supervision of their teenage sons in their absence, if the consumption of alcohol in their home by improperly supervised teenagers was reasonably foreseeable in their absence, and if the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by an intoxicated teenage social guest was a reasonably foreseeable proximate consequence of any breach of duty of supervision.

We have recently reviewed the history of common-law liability for permitting minors to obtain intoxicating beverages. See Finney v. Ren-Bar, Inc., 229 N.J. Super. 295 (App.Div.1988), a case where a minor obtained alcoholic beverages from an alcoholic beverage licensee and then, while under the ...


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