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Social Host Liability – Injured Intoxicated Guests Suing Party Hosts

A social host is a person who holds a private party where alcohol is served and consumed by guests.  A social host is different from a commercial host which is a business establishment such as a restaurant or a bar that serves alcohol for profit.  Accordingly, the legal responsibility differs between a social host and a commercial host.   This is because it is reasonable to expect that a commercial host will act to protect the public interest.  The public interest is the expectation that the commercial host will comply with rules that prohibit over-serving alcohol to a customer and that reasonable steps will be taken to prevent an intoxicated customer from driving.  Social hosts, on the other hand, do not undertake nor is it expected that they would be expected to monitor the conduct of guests on behalf of the public.  Accordingly, there is a lesser duty on social hosts.

In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada made a significant ruling in a social host liability case.  In the leading case of Childs v. Desmormeaux 2006 SCC 18, the social hosts held a “BYOB” new years eve party.  At the party, the social hosts provided a small amount of champagne to toast in the new year otherwise no other alcohol was provided.  The defendant consumed 12 beers while at the party.  He left the party driving his own vehicle which was involved in a head on motor vehicle accident.  The collision killed a passenger and seriously injured several other passengers in the other vehicle. The party hosts were not aware of the defendant’s level of intoxication when he left the party.

The Supreme Court of Canada evaluated the duty of care of social hosts.  The court ultimately held that:

“a social host at a party where alcohol is served is not under a duty of care to members of the public who may be injured by a guest’s actions, unless the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk” 

What this means is that the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that a social host does not, as a general rule, have a duty to protect the public from intoxicated guests.  This duty, however, can be imposed in such circumstances where the social host continues to serve alcohol to an intoxicated guest knowing they will be driving at some point in the evening.

Several cases that followed this decision have further defined the duty of care and the extent of a social host’s liability.

In a recent British Columbia social host liability case, the duty of care of a social host was further defined.

In McCormick v. Plambeck 2020 BCSC 881, the defendants hosted a house party at their Salt Spring Island home for their daughters and approximately 50-70 of their mostly underage friends.  The defendant parents were home during the party and walked through the party from time to time to check on things.  They directed their daughters to take the car keys of anyone who drove to their house.  They ended the party at 1:00 a.m. and then drove certain individuals home who required a ride and offered for others to stay overnight in their home.  The plaintiff left the party early with his friend.  Both had been drinking at the party.  After leaving the party, they crossed a nearby field to steal a neighbour’s car.  At the time they knew that the owners were selling the car and had left the keys on the driver’s side wheel.  Shortly after leaving with the stolen car, the driver lost control killing himself and seriously injuring the plaintiff.  As a result of a traumatic brain injury, the plaintiff is cognitively impaired and living at an assisted care facility.

The plaintiff sued the parents who were the social hosts of the party.  The basis of the claim was in negligence.  It was alleged that the defendant parents had breached the duty of care owed to him.  Specifically, it was argued that they failed to properly supervise him at the party, they had allowed him to become intoxicated on their property and they had failed to stop him from leaving.

The legal duty of care requires reasonable foreseeability and sufficient proximity between the plaintiff and the defendant.

The fact that something is possible does not mean it is reasonably foreseeable.  The plaintiff argued that a number of injuries are foreseeable by virtue of hosting a house party where alcohol is consumed such as trips and falls, fights and motor vehicle accidents caused by intoxicated guests.  The trial judge ruled that while “as hosts, the Pearsons had to take all reasonable steps to minimize the risks of harm to their guests, including the plaintiff”, he noted that the standard is one of “reasonableness, not perfection”.  The trial judge concluded that the defendant parents could not have foreseen that one or more of the party guests would leave the party by foot, trespass onto a neighbouring property to steal a car and then drive it unsafely:

“Although I have found that the defendants were in a paternalistic relationship with the guests of the party, I find that no duty of care has been established in this case because the injury complained of was not reasonably foreseeable as a result of the defendants’ conduct. The plaintiff’s case thus fails in the duty-of-care analysis.”

The trial judge also ruled that the defendant parents did assume some element of control over the underage guests drinking in their home.  It was found, however, that they did not create an inherent or obvious risk that the guests would be or could be injured.

See a CBC news article which discusses this case and social host liability.

Tags: Social Host Liability

"Jacqueline A. Small is a personal injury lawyer with over 15 years of experience and a partner with Holness Law Group."

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