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Summary judgment a tough ask for insurers in social host liability cases

Seeking summary judgment may not be the best option for an insurer facing a social host liability claim, Toronto insurance defence lawyer Heather Vaughan tells AdvocateDaily.com.

In a recent Ontario Superior Court decision, the judge ruled that only a trial could establish whether the hosts of a 19th birthday party owed a duty of care to an underage guest who suffered serious injuries after leaving the celebrations impaired and on foot, before driving a car into a tree.

Vaughan, a partner at Benson Percival Brown LLP, says it’s just the latest in a line of cases where judges have dismissed summary judgment motions brought by defendants in similar circumstances.

“The trend seems to be that courts are loath to dismiss these cases summarily, particularly in cases involving under aged drinking. Insurers might have to take some of them to trial,” Vaughan says. “The risk and cost of a full trial is something insurers will have to balance when defending these cases, even when liability seems clear.”

Vaughan says social host liability claims remain relatively rare, but tend to arise when there are no other viable sources of insurance for a seriously injured plaintiff.

According to the decision in this case, the 18-year-old victim walked a short distance home from the party, got into a car, and drove over a fire hydrant and into a tree. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and the crash left him quadriplegic and with cognitive impairment.  

“This is a tragic case, where the injuries suffered require some kind of recovery,” Vaughan says. “With no other tortfeasors to sue, it was almost inevitable they would pursue social host liability.”    

The defendant hosts, the parents of the 19-year-old, moved for summary judgment dismissing the claim, arguing they owed no duty of care to guests because they didn’t serve any alcohol at the party.

Even if they did owe a duty, the defendants said they had met it because they did not see the victim drinking, and did all they could to get him home safely once they realized something was amiss. But Ontario Superior Court Justice Wendy Matheson dismissed the motion.   

“Although there are some facts that can be found on the record before me, the relevant factual matrix quickly becomes complicated and cannot fairly and justly be determined on this motion.  Nor is the claim bound to fail on the law,” the judge wrote. 

Vaughan says the decision should also concern social hosts.

“Ultimately, it shows social hosts could still be found responsible if someone is seriously injured at, or after, their event,” she says. “It should serve as a reminder to be responsible for the parties they throw. 

“They should check their insurance to make sure they will be covered, or they could consider moving the party to a commercial host, such as a bar,” Vaughan adds.

The Supreme Court of Canada opened the door to social host liability in a landmark 2006 decision. Despite rejecting the claim in that case, the nation’s top court found hosts could be found responsible in certain situations where harm was foreseeable.

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