Holiday Drinking and Social Host Liability

Holiday Drinking and Social Host Liability
Published on:
December 17, 2019
Published on:
September 22, 2021

As the holidays approach, it is important to be aware of your legal responsibilities as a host when serving alcohol at your home.For many years, the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Childs v. Desmormeaux, 2006 SCC 18, has been the leading case on social host liability. The case involved a drunk party guest who crashed head-on into another car while driving home from a private BYOB New Year’s Eve party. One of the passengers in the other car died and three others were seriously injured. The Supreme Court case found that the homeowners who hosted the party were not liable for injuries caused by the intoxicated guest who attended their party. Many Court cases have been dismissed since then on the basis that there is no duty of care owed by a social host to guests or third parties.That being said, more recently in Williams v. Richard, 2018 ONCA 889, the Court of Appeal for Ontario re-visited the reasoning in Childs v. Desmormeaux. The Williams case involved a pair of co-workers who would regularly meet for drinks at a home owned by one of their mothers. On the day in question, the pair consumed 15 beers within a three-hour period. One of the men then left the residence to pick up his children and their babysitter. While driving home, the man was involved in an accident, which resulted in him being killed and his children being seriously injured.In its analysis, the Court revisited the legal principles in Childs v. Desmormeaux and the legal cases that have come after that decision. Specifically, the Court noted that there is not clear formula for determining whether a duty of care is owed by social hosts to their guests or third parties. It found that whether or not a social host has a legal duty will depend on both foreseeability and proximity.The foreseeability aspect looks at the host’s knowledge of the intoxicated person’s state or plans to engage in an activity that is dangerous and could cause harm. The issue of proximity depends on whether there are facts that suggest that the host should have done something more to prevent something bad from happening. This could exist in a situation in which there is a paternalistic relationship between the parties or where the host was creating an inherently risky environment for guests at the party.The take-home message from Williams v. Richard is that the issue of whether or not a social host is responsible for damages caused by guests consuming alcohol at their home will depend on a thorough review of the facts on case-by-case basis.In order to avoid unfortunate situations as described above, you should consider taking the following steps to help your guests celebrate the holidays as safely as possible:

  • Check your home and entrances for potential hazards.
  • Ensure that you and/or you co-hosts stay sober so you can keep a better eye on your guests.
  • Be pro-active about dealing with guests that have been problematic at past events.
  • Avoid making alcohol the focus of your party. Have activities that all guests can participate in.
  • Offer non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Have lots of food on hand to mitigate the effects of alcohol.
  • Monitor over-consumption and stop serving alcohol well before the party ends.
  • Make a plan in advance to ensure that guests who become intoxicated get home safely or stay the night.

Have a safe and happy holiday season!Veronica Marson is a director of the Canadian Hispanic Bar Association (2015 to present) and a commissioner on the ABA's Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities (2018 to present). She currently works as a plaintiff-side personal injury and insurance lawyer at the law firm of Singer Kwinter in Toronto.

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