Personal Injury

Social host liability law evolving fast

By Staff

Party holders should be cautious as Canadian law edges towards liability for social hosts, Toronto personal injury lawyer Andrew M. Lee tells

Lee, the founder and principal of Lee and Associates Personal Injury Lawyers, explains the leading case in the area is a landmark 2006 decision where the Supreme Court of Canada rejected a claim of liability against the hosts of a bring-your-own-booze party by third parties injured after attending. However, the nation’s top court left the door open to future claims in the right circumstances.

“My advice for hosts is to be wary,” Lee says. “The way the case law is rapidly evolving, I think we could very well see a case in the not-too-distant future where a court will say social host liability does exist.”

Lee says claims against hosts are relatively rare, but a number have worked their way through the legal system. While none has yet reached trial, in a recent Ontario Superior Court decision, the judge decided a full hearing was the only way to 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.

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

“This motion for summary judgment and others have given the legal community warning that it’s an evolving area of the law, and social hosts may be liable for injuries sustained after leaving in certain cases, particularly if invitees are under age or show signs of impairment,” Lee says.

While the issues shake themselves out in court, Lee says there are a number of precautions hosts can take to minimize the chances of a lawsuit during the summer barbecue and party season.

  • Avoid over-consumption of alcohol by guests
  • Actively monitor and limit guests’ alcohol intake

If guests become intoxicated:

  • Dissuade them from driving or getting into dangerous situations
  • Offer to call a taxi or arrange other transportation options for their return home
  • Take proactive measures, such as removing car keys from the individual
  • Encourage them to drink water and serve food to minimize the effect
  • Offer them the chance to stay longer until the effects of the alcohol have worn off.

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