Sober Host Training and its Implications

In the spring of 2014, students came forward to the administration saying that the party culture at the University of Redlands was beginning to get out of hand. People were drinking excessively, non-students were attending University parties, and the lack of regulation allowed for unsafe rowdiness. As a result, the administration and the student body came together to rewrite the campus’ party policy. With that, new policy laid more responsibility and liability on the shoulders of the sober hosts, whose function is to keep people safe and happy at registered campus parties. As organization members are just beginning to sober host, it is important to understand the responsibility that they are signing up for.

“We brought together students from multiple constituencies, including ASUR, Johnston, Greek Life sibling hoods, athletics, and Res Life to kind of sit down and look at parties on campus and figure out what worked and what didn’t work,” said Christy Clinton, University of Redlands Director of Greek Life. “We looked at national standards and other schools and eventually the committee – which is nine students, a faculty member, and two administrators – wrote the party policy. It took us over six months and it came into effect last January.”

The sober hosts of a party often have different roles, such as manning the door to ensure that no one who enters is overly intoxicated, bartending to ensure that everyone consuming alcohol is over 21 and is not too intoxicated, and floating throughout the party to make sure that everyone is acting civilly and staying safe. The sober hosts are mandated to wear a visible orange bandana somewhere on their body in order for party attendees to be able to identify them.

“The responsibility for ensuring that events are safe and in compliance with all federal, state, and local laws, and University policies, rests with the students hosting the event,” University of Redland’s party policy states. “As such, students hosting events also assume full responsibility for the tone of the event and the wellbeing and actions of all event attendees (including vendors and/or entertainment).”

Although the party policy says that all responsibility falls on the sober hosts, Kim Myers, the residence director of Williams Hall and one of the conductors of sober host training stated that in the case of a lawsuit, lawyers might sue anyone, whether it be administrators, organization leaders, or the sober hosts.

“You just don’t know what incident could happen,” Clinton said. “If someone were to be [negligent], whether it be the organization who is hosting an event, or a sober host or a guest at the party, if someone were to do something that’s probably not the smartest idea, ultimately we are in a litigious society and anyone can sue anyone and that’s kind of scary. The hope is though, that having the added element of a sober host, there is an added protection of someone that’s responsible for what’s going on.”

James Lynch, the Chief Actuary at the Insurance Information Institute, said that in a civil court social host liability differs from state to state. However, in California, social hosts typically will not get sued.

“In California, social hosts are generally immune from prosecution and civil penalties, the thinking being that it is the person consuming the alcohol who is at fault,” Lynch said.

However, this is not always the case. In the 2014 California Supreme Court Case Ennabe v. Manosa, a minor threw a party and charged people a cover fee to get in, in order to cover the cost of alcohol. An intoxicated minor attempted to drive away, but got in an accident and killed someone on the way.

“A non licensee may be liable only if a sale occurs,” Ennabe v. Manosa states. “That is, a non licensee, such as a social host, who merely furnishes or gives drinks away — even to an obviously intoxicated minor — retains his or her statutory immunity.”

Lynch explains that this is an important exception to note.

“If parties at University of Redlands are typical of college life, there are a lot of minors present, most of the minors are obviously drunk, and usually there is some sort of passing of the hat or cover charge to pay for alcohol,” Lynch states. “In that case, the host could well be held responsible for the activities for every minor at the party. If there is a lawsuit, the plaintiffs will usually try to get coverage from the homeowners insurance of either the host or the parents of the host (even if the party is not held at the parents’ house).”

This does not change the fact that the official party policy contract does not mention any liability falling upon the University, yet it does mention liability of the students.

“The University provides regulations, training, and support to student leaders in the planning and management of parties and events,” University of Redland’s party policy states. “In addition, the University makes no attempt to shield individuals or organizations from legal consequences that result from any violations of federal, state, or local laws associated with events.”

University of Redlands senior, Maya Joshua feels that the University is unfairly shifting potential liability onto the students in order to save their money and time.

“It’s like the guy was captured by aliens and he’s like ‘Please don’t eat me, I have a wife and kids, eat them.’ That’s like the University, right? It’s like please, don’t sue me, I have students, sue them,” Joshua said.

If an individual decides to consume alcohol, it is by their own free will that  they have made that choice. In that regard, the University is not creating risks for anyone. However, it is the University’s duty to put effective policies in place that manage the drinking culture on campus.

“The University is not pouring alcohol down the throats of any students,” Joshua said. “But the University is well aware of the legal climate in this country. It’s a terrifying legal climate. They have taken no steps to protect their students. They have done quite the opposite. They are taking the students and shoving them into the shark tank.”

Although it is stated in the contract that the University is not attempting to protect its students, the administration says that the lines of liability are blurry.

“I don’t think the University escapes liability at all,” Clinton said. “Well, let me clarify that. The University is liable because we are having to follow the party policy, but if something were to occur where the student were to veer from the policy, there is nothing we can really do. Because we have a policy and it was supposed to be followed.”

The University of Redlands is a wet campus, which means that people of age are allowed to consume alcohol on campus and at events, if in compliance with the given restrictions. Specifically with campus-registered parties, the University is aware that alcohol is often present.

“It’s difficult because it is not stated [in the contract that the University] will have the liability,” said Elizabeth Pospichal, University of Redlands senior, ASUR Greek Life Representative, and Delta Kappa Psi member said. “But they can still be sued because it did happen on their property and they know about it.”

Sober hosting is voluntary for Greek Life members, and thus they have no obligation to take on this liability if they are uncomfortable with the situation. However, 85% of active members of the organization must be sober-host certified in order to receive a party license. Thus, the foundation of the University’s party policy is built upon students volunteering as a sober host, and consequently trusting their peers to be smart and responsible.

“Since it is voluntary, no one can be forced to do it,” Pospichal said. “It’s a lot of liability and responsibility, but we’re all adults and I think we can handle it. Because it’s ensuring that we all are having safe parties, and because if there was no liability then what would be the point of ensuring that everyone is safe?”

Since alcohol-related incidents are not necessarily infrequent, the University acknowledges the large amount of liability that can potentially fall on sober hosts.

“Organizations and individual Sober Hosts take on a significant amount of responsibility and liability by hosting events,” University of Redland’s party policy states. “Evidence that events are not safely managed or that any laws or University policies have been violated are therefore treated seriously. Individuals, organizations, or both can be held responsible for violations via the Code of Student Conduct.”

The party policy’s purpose ultimately is to prevent party-goers from getting in trouble or danger. However, it is difficult to successfully protect students, sober hosts, greek life leaders, and the University, in one document.  

“I’m not saying sober hosts shouldn’t be responsible for creating a safe environment, because they should have that responsibility,” Joshua said. “Our interest is to keep the community safe. But to take a group of 18-22 year-olds who don’t really know what they’re getting into, and put them at this risk, I think is insane.”

In the sober host training session, Myers shared horror stories of sober hosts at universities across the nation getting sued from tragic alcohol-related incidents at parties. The examples included a student who became paralyzed from being thrown out of a window in a full nelson. The parents were able to sue the organization and its president for $2 million. Another party-goer died of hypothermia after leaving a party and passing out in a stairwell. The national fraternity did not get sued, but rather the individuals involved in the incident. Myers said that it is everybody’s job to keep people and events safe.

The slideshow presented at the sober host training contained facts about lawsuits, in addition to definitions of civil and criminal liability, tips for being a good and responsible sober hosts, characteristics and side effects of intoxicated people, and the specific protocol and rules of sober hosting. As a synopsis of the training, Myers said that it is on you (the sober host) to make sure that bad things don’t happen at parties.

When asked for access to the slideshow used at the training, Clinton said that access to the powerpoint is typically not made available.

“We usually don’t give [the slideshow] out,” Clinton said. “Most of where we take it from is the party policy.”

There is a tremendous amount of liability and responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the sober hosts, and many potentially dangerous outcomes for all those involved. Thus, sober hosting should be taken very seriously and it should be noted that it is absolutely voluntary.

Joshua was trained as a sober host in order to be able to volunteer at a fundraising event for her friend’s organization. After learning about the massive liability of sober hosts, she said that she is reconsidering taking on that responsibility.

“As a student, I would think very hard before I agree to sober host an animal-petting event, much less an event with alcohol involved,” Joshua said.

[Image courtesy of Joseph Serrano, Redlands Bulldog photographer]


  • Willow Higgins

    University of Redlands senior, Public Policy and English double major and previous Editor-in-Chief of the Redlands Bulldog. Higgins retired from her leadership position to study journalism abroad, and will return as a full-time reporter.