Christmas Cheer or Lawsuit of the Season?

This time of year brings plenty of opportunity for clinking of glasses and sharing a sip (or two) of your favorite Christmas cider with customers, fellow workers, friends or family members.  Most of us are responsible enough to avoid allowing our guests to become part of this season's statistical carnage, but what happens when a host allows a tipsy but determined partygoer to drive home?  The issue of social host liability has recently been considered by the Supreme Court of Canada, which has provided some guidance to those planning a Christmas party.

FACTS

An inebriated driver left a party at a private home, only to collide head-on with another vehicle, killing one person and seriously injuring three others.  One of the injured parties sued the hosts of the party at which the partygoer/driver had become drunk.

FINDING

While in this case the Court found that the social hosts of this party did not owe a duty of care to members of the public who may be injured by an intoxicated guest’s conduct, this case has far from closed the door on the liability of party planners.

There are at least three situations where a positive duty of care exists in host circumstances.

First, where a person intentionally attracts and invites third parties to be involved in an inherently risky activity that he or she created or controlled, a duty exists to take reasonable care.  For example, liability would likely result where the organizer of a "Christmas challenge" offered prizes to the guests who, after successfully downing a number of shooters, were told they had to climb up the exposed fire escape ladder to the roof of the building, only to fall, injuring himself and others on the way down.

Second, a duty of care exists where a "paternalistic relationship" is in play.  Whenever vulnerable people are harmed the Courts are especially vigilant in protecting their rights to recover for damages suffered.  For example, the parent host of a drinking party for underage participants would more than likely generate liability if injuries resulted.  A similar result would arise in the case of a student -- teacher circumstance.

Third, those offering services to the general public must take responsibility to act with special care to reduce risk.  Therefore, a commercial host who serves alcohol to guests must act reasonably to prevent drinking to excess and the foreseeable harm caused by those guests driving home drunk.

In all these cases it is the degree of the host’s control over the guest that seems to trigger responsibility.  While adults have the right to engage in risky activities, there may be an obligation on the person creating the risk to take reasonable steps to protect vulnerable participants and others from being harmed.

So what did the Court say about the liability of a social host? 

  • just hosting a party is not inviting participation in a high risk activity.
  • party hosts do not usually have a "paternalistic relationship" with guests.
  • simply serving alcohol to adults at a party does not impose a duty of care.
  • it is the guest who normally must take responsibility for his or her conduct, including drinking too much and then driving.

Unless a social host creates or substantially increases a risk, there is no duty to either the adult guest or those who may be harmed by that guest.  But beware: the same cannot necessarily be said of workplace parties sponsored by an employer, or other commercial activities.

The best of the season to you -- but drink responsibly (and encourage others to do likewise).  And stay out of court!

This article was written by Robert G. Kuhn, a lawyer who practices in construction law at the law firm of Kuhn LLP. It is only intended as a guide and cannot cover every situation. It is important to get legal advice for specific situations. If you have questions or comments about this case or other construction law matters, please contact us at 604-864-8877.