Court of Appeal Signals Door Still Open For Social Host Liability
As we once again enter another festive season, many of us look forward to attending and socially hosting get-togethers with friends, family and colleagues. Alcoholic drinks are often consumed, and chances are that some guests may overindulge. What risks is the social host of such a party assuming?
The concern for social hosts usually relates to a guest who drinks too much, gets in their car and causes an accident in which they seriously injure or kill themselves, or other innocent users of the roadway.
Liability to injured third parties against commercial establishments such as bars, that overserve drunken guests is well-established. Commercial hosts that profit from the sale of alcohol have significant responsibilities to control and avoid foreseeable dangers involving their customers. So far courts have been reluctant to extend the same obligations to private social hosts who just want to hold a friendly get-together.
In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a case involving private social host liability to third parties. In Childs v. Desormeaux (Childs) the Supreme Court found no duty existed on facts where an intoxicated guest leaving a private, party, killed one person and paralyzing another in a crash.
In Childs the Supreme Court ruled that holding a private party where alcohol is served does not alone give rise to a duty of care to third parties who are subsequently injured by the conduct of a guest. There was insufficient evidence in this particular case to suggest that the host knew the extent of the drivers’ intoxication and no evidence that the host created an inherently risky situation. The Court emphasized the autonomy of guests who make a personal choice to assume the risks of driving impaired. However, the Court ruled that a positive duty of care may exist if foreseeability of harm is present and if aspects of the relationship between the parties establishes proximity. The case seemed to set a high bar before a social host could be found legally liable in such cases, such that it would be very rare that such claims would succeed, until now.
A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision in Williams v. Richard has potentially opened the door to a finding of liability for a social host. The case sheds light on the reasoning in Childs and provides guidance on circumstances which may distinguish a case enough from the facts in Childs to result in a liability finding for social hosts. In this case, Mr. Williams and Mr. Richard were friends who would often get together to drink beer at each other’s houses, and in this instance got together one afternoon. Williams drank fifteen beers from a fridge stocked in Mr. Richard’s garage, and was obviously inebriated. Richard knew that his inebriated guest intended to drive home first, and then drive the babysitter home with his children in the car.
Williams did exactly that, crashed into a truck – killing himself and injuring his children. On a summary judgment motion, a judge dismissed the case – relying on Childs – the judge ruled there could be no duty on the social host Mr. Richard, that could lead to liability.
The Court of Appeal set the ruling aside and directed the case to go to a full trial. The Court of Appeal held that it remained a live issue as to whether Mr. Richard created an “inherently risky environment” under his control such that a positive duty of care existed, given the particular facts in this case. The Court recognized that there is a spectrum of factual situations, where at one end a homeowner or host could very well be found liable, and at the other they may not be, as in Childs.
The lesson from this case for social hosts is that they should still be cautious about hosting gatherings where alcohol is served. Any injuries to innocent third parties which may arise from a guest driving away from the gathering drunk could result in a significant judgement against the host. Drunk driving collisions quite often involve catastrophic injuries.
It remains to be seen how social host liability law will develop in light of the recent legalization of cannabis. Could social hosts potentially be held responsible for the injurious conduct of a guest who drives away from the party high on cannabis?
Hosts would be wise to take precautions to minimize the chance of such collisions occurring – consider carefully the risks of serving any substance that could impair guests, limit the amount served, monitor your guests, offer to provide taxi, ridesharing or other transportation options to those who have partaken, and if a visibly intoxicated individual insists on driving away – call the police.
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