Hosting a Holiday Party

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Social Host Liability

By Kathryn F. Hordienko

shutterstock_227007598-w1200-h1200As the holiday season approaches, it is time to plan our social calendars. Whether it is family events, potluck dinners with friends, or gatherings with work colleagues, the festive social engagements will be plentiful. At this time of year, it is wise to revisit our legal obligations when hosting a party where alcohol is served.

The Supreme Court of Canada set the precedent for social host liability in the 2006 decision of Childs v. Desormeaux. In that case, hosts of a private party were sued after an intoxicated guest subsequently drove and collided with another vehicle, causing one death and serious injuries to the other passengers. The plaintiff was a passenger who was rendered a parapalegic. She argued that they owed a legal duty of care to third party motorists in their capacity as social hosts. Although commercial host liability, where patrons are served alcohol by a business, had already been defined, this was the first time that the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled on the obligations of private hosts.

The Court concluded that hosts of private social gatherings at which alcohol is served do not owe a legal duty of care to members of the public who are injured by a guest’s actions. It noted that guests remain responsible for their conduct, and “did not park their autonomy at the door.” However, the Court left open the possibility that in the future, on a different set of facts, a social host could be held liable if their “conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk.” It stated that there is no positive duty to prevent a guest from driving if they had simply served them alcohol. However, if the host becomes more actively involved in promoting the risk, such as continuing to serve a visibly intoxicated guest knowing that they intended to drive, this could create a legal duty to their guests and to the public at large.

While the law on social host liability has not evolved to any great extent since the 2006 Childs decision, there are a few more recent cases worth noting. These cases have not changed the law, but have renewed the possibility that the scope of social host liability may be expanded in the future.

Desanti v. Gray

This was an appeal from a lower court decision summarily dismissing a claim against the hosts of a party. The Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the decision.

The facts of the Desanti case involved an intoxicated guest who, after leaving a party hosted by the Grays’ teenage son, injured a third party in an altercation. He claimed that the parents had overheard him have a heated discussion on the telephone, thereby making it foreseeable that he would meet up with the person to whom he was speaking. The guest, who was a minor at the time, alleged that the hosts owed a duty of care to third parties for his conduct as they had contributed to, assisted or acquiesced in the altercation. In rejecting this argument, the Court held that regardless of whether the Grays had overheard such plans, holding them liable would be extending the principle of social host beyond a reasonable limit. It was further noted that, even if a duty was found to exist, the parents had met their obligations by inviting all guests to have a non-alcoholic beverage and snack before leaving and inquiring about how they would be getting home.

Lutter v. Smithson

In this British Columbia case, parents permitted their teenage daughter to host a BYOB party at their home, which included an underage guest. The guest drove head-on into a taxi cab after the party, killing the driver and seriously injuring the passenger. The parents sought to have the claim against them dismissed. One of the main issues considered was whether the adult hosts were “actively implicated in the creation or enhancement of risk” on the basis that the guest was a minor and they permitted underage drinking on their property to the point of intoxication. The judge ruled that the plaintiff’s claim raised a genuine issue, dismissed the motion for summary judgment and directed that the matter proceed to trial.

Sidhu v. Hiebert

In another British Columbia decision, an intoxicated guest left a party, drove and seriously injured passengers in a motor vehicle accident. However, unlike in the Childs decision, where the hosts did not realize that their guest was drunk, the knowledge of the hosts respecting their guest’s level of sobriety was uncertain. In dismissing the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the Court reiterated the Supreme Court of Canada’s conclusion that “it did not intend to close the door on the possibility of social host liability to third party users of highways” suggesting that the circumstances of the case might well support a finding that a duty of care was owed by the hosts to the injured parties.

In due time, the above decisions, among others, will be addressed by the Courts to fully define the extent of liability of individual hosts to members of the public who are subsequently injured by their intoxicated guests’ conduct.

The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission’s Guide for Responsible Entertaining summarizes the current status of the law by stating that “you may be held liable for guests’ actions” and that “recent lawsuits indicate that you, as the host, may be held legally responsible if a guest leaves your home after consuming alcohol and gets into an accident.”

The take-home message is that morally, and possibly legally, individuals who host parties where alcohol is served ought to proceed with caution in ensuring that their guests drink responsibly and make it home safely. As hosts, it is best to make certain that we all have a festive – and safe – holiday season.   

Kathryn F. Hordienko is a lawyer at Fillmore Riley LLP. She practises primarily in the areas of employment law and civil litigation. She can be reached at khordienko@fillmoreriley.com or (204) 957-8365.