Personal Injury

Evolving liability for party hosts with intoxicated guests

By Staff

Holiday party hosts may find themselves liable for the misdeeds of intoxicated guests as the law in the area continues to evolve, Toronto personal injury lawyer Paul Cahill tells

Cahill, a partner with Will Davidson LLP, says Canadian courts in the last decade have edged slowly and hesitantly towards imposing some form of duty of care on social hosts.

“Courts have not levied blanket liability on all social hosts, so I wouldn’t say that we all have to check our insurance policies, but at the same time, it’s possible you could be found liable,” he says. “Like a lot of evolving or emerging trends in civil liability, it reflects changing societal values over time about the responsibility we have to other people when we serve alcohol in our home.”

For now, he says the seminal case in the area remains a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision in which the nation’s top court dismissed a claim against the hosts of a bring-your-own-booze party by third parties who were injured after attending. However, the decision opened the door to social host liability in certain situations where harm was foreseeable.

“Just because you have a social gathering, and someone leaves intoxicated, gets in a car accident and hurts themselves or others, doesn’t necessarily make you civilly responsible,” Cahill says.

He says social hosts should be guided by the Supreme Court decision, which explained that a “positive duty of care may exist if foreseeability of harm is present and if other aspects of the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant establish a special link or proximity.” Cahill describes three situations when it might arise:

  • where a defendant intentionally attracts and invites third parties to an inherent and obvious risk that he or she has created or controls. “An example of this may be someone who hosts a drinking game party. If I invite everyone to play beer pong, and encourage them to drink large amounts of alcohol, and then allow them to leave completely intoxicated, a court could very well find liability.”
  • where paternalistic relationships of supervision and control are at play, such as those of parent-child or teacher-student. “One example might be parents hosting a 19th birthday party for a child. Because you’re exercising supervision and control over the party, including possible alcohol consumption, you could be responsible if things get out of hand.”
  • where defendants either exercise a public function or engage in a commercial enterprise that includes implied responsibilities to the public at large. “If you’re running a function for profit that includes the consumption of alcohol, you may have the same type of duty of care that we expect of bars to ensure everyone is drinking responsibly.”

In one notable 2017 case, the law on social hosts advanced when an Ontario judge decided 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.

According to the decision, the 18-year-old victim walked a short distance home from the party, got into a car, 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.

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

In any event, the defendants said they had met any duty of care they did owe 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.

As the law continues to develop, Cahill says courts are likely to be guided by changing societal values.

“At the moment, there is a reluctance to provide blanket liability on social hosts, but that could change if we become more conservative in our thinking, and there emerges a feeling that hosts need to have a greater degree of obligation to their guests,” he says.

“But it may also go the other way, where people feel that individuals need to take more responsibility for their own actions, rather than blaming the person who poured them an extra glass of wine before they knew they had to drive home.”

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