Social Host Liability in the Pandemic Era

Public health regulations designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 meant that Ontarians hosted far fewer social gatherings in 2020 than in years past. Even during the holidays, when more people saw friends and family than health officials would have liked, gatherings were fewer and smaller than is customary.

For personal injury lawyers handling social host liability cases, this safely antisocial behaviour meant less work than in previous years. However, social host liability suits are far from a thing of the past – some lawyers believe that claims may arise from the few Super Bowl LV gatherings that did occur, and others expect a surge in cases when (and if) the pandemic subsides.

What is Social Host Liability?

Social host liability refers to the legal responsibility held by hosts of private social gatherings to ensure their guests do not experience harm after leaving the premises. This is a nuanced and evolving area of personal injury law; our understanding of it stems from a handful of precedent-setting cases:

Childs v Desormeaux

The question at the centre of this 2006 case was whether Julie Zimmerman and Dwight Courrier, the hosts of a New Year’s potluck, were responsible for injuries incurred by Desmond Desormeaux after he left the party. On the night of his accident, Desormeaux attended the gathering and drank roughly 12 beers in over two and a half hours. The hosts did not monitor his intake any more closely than other guests. Desormeaux eventually left the party and was involved in a two-vehicle crash on the way home. One passenger in the other vehicle, Zoe Childs, was paralyzed and another, Derek Dupre, was killed.

The Supreme Court of Canada found that Zimmerman and Courrier did not owe Childs a duty of care because their relationship with Desormeaux was not ‘proximate’ enough. In other words, the couple did not serve Desormeaux alcohol and did not realize the extent of his intoxication.

Wardak v Froom

Wardak v Froom, a 2017 case, arose from a 19th birthday party the defendants hosted for their son at their home. The plaintiff was an 18-year-old neighbour who brought his own alcohol to the event and became intoxicated. After leaving the party on foot, he got in his car and was involved in a serious single-vehicle accident.

Unlike in Childs v Desormeaux, the defendants were found liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. This was due to the fact that the injuries occurred to a guest, not a third party, and due to the ‘paternalistic relationship’ between the host and the plaintiff.

McCormick v Plambeck

In this recently decided case from British Columbia, the plaintiff was injured in a single vehicle crash after leaving a party hosted by the parents of a friend. The plaintiff, who was a passenger in the vehicle, was intoxicated; the driver, who was killed, was not.

The court ultimately ruled that the hosts were not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Not only had the hosts taken steps to prevent impaired driving – demanding that guests place their keys in a bowl; offering rides home to those who were too intoxicated to drive – but they were not even aware that the plaintiff and the driver had access to a vehicle. In fact, the pair stole the vehicle from a nearby lot after leaving the party.

The Future of Social Host Liability

A recent Law Times article posited that personal injury lawyers may see a sudden increase in social host liability claims if and when public health regulations are lifted.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of many festive occasions usually marked by parties or get-togethers, and by the time things return to normal people could be making up for missing multiple St. Patrick’s Days, May 24s, birthdays and the like – and may be tempted to party even harder than usual,” it read. “In light of this likelihood, it’s pertinent to be up to date on the present state of social host liability.”

More urgently, some lawyers interviewed by CTV’s Your Morning suggested that social host liability cases could arise from holiday gatherings in December; although there is no precedent, hosts may theoretically be liable for spreading COVID-19.

Establishing liability in such a case would be difficult. A plaintiff would likely have to prove that the host knew they were putting guests at risk of exposure. If such a case were successful, though, it is unlikely that homeowners’ insurance would cover the costs – many policies have exemptions for communicable diseases and for acts outside public health regulations.

Contact Will Davidson LLP

If you have questions about social host liability, or if you or a member of your family have been injured in an accident, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced team of personal injury lawyers will provide all the answers you need.

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When are Hosts Responsible for Guests’ Injuries?

A personal injury lawsuit in British Columbia’s Supreme Court could inform Canada’s evolving social host liability rules. The case, in which Calder McCormick is seeking damages for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident following a 2012 house party, went to trial in mid-February. Personal injury lawyers are eagerly anticipating the decision.

What is Social Host Liability?

Social host liability applies when the host of a social gathering owes a duty of care to an injury victim. It is generally considered in cases involving alcohol.

Determining social host liability requires answering numerous questions. If, for example, a host provides alcohol to his or her guests and one of those guests becomes impaired, is the host responsible for the safety of that guest when they leave the premises? Is the host responsible for the safety of people the guest might come in contact with? Does liability still exist if the guest consumes his or her own alcohol? How does the equation change when the guest is underage?

Relevant Cases

Some of these questions have been answered in resolved cases that personal injury lawyers are well aware of, including Childs v Desormeaux and Wardak v Froom.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s 2006 ruling in Childs v Desormeaux informs much of what is known about social host liability. In that case, the plaintiff, Childs, was injured in a drunk driving accident caused by the defendant, who had recently left a private New Year’s celebration. The courts were asked to determine whether the hosts of the celebration were liable or partly liable for Childs’ injuries.

All three courts found that the hosts were not liable as they had not served alcohol to Desormeaux (the event was BYOB – Bring Your Own Booze) and had monitored his drinking to the same extent as other guests. The hosts also asked Desormeaux whether he was alright before he left and did not realize the extent of his inebriation. In other words, the hosts were not reasonably able to foresee that Desormeaux would cause an accident resulting in injuries to himself or others. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled that the proximity between the hosts and the plaintiff was insufficient.

“Hosting a party at which alcohol is served does not, without more, establish the degree of proximity required to give rise to a duty of care on the hosts to third party highway users who may be injured by an intoxicated guest,” the ruling reads.

In Wardak v Froom, a case from 2017, Ontario Superior Court Justice Wendy Matheson interpreted “without more” to mean that a duty of care could arise. In that case, the plaintiff, Dean Wardak, suffered catastrophic injuries in a single-car accident after attending the 19th birthday party of his neighbour, Graeme Froom. Froom’s parents hosted the gathering. They did not serve alcohol but understood that guests were drinking. During the evening, Wardak became intoxicated, left the Frooms’ residence, walked home, got into his car, and drove into a fire hydrant. Evidence suggests the hosts knew Wardak was intoxicated when he left. He is now quadriplegic.

Justice Matheson ruled in the plaintiff’s favour. Although she did not find that Wardak’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable, she determined that the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant was one of paternalistic supervision. The fact that the plaintiff was underage and showed signs of intoxication also played into the decision, as did the fact that he was an invited guest, unlike the plaintiff in Childs v Desormeaux

The Case in British Columbia

The case in British Columbia also involves underage drinking at a supervised party. In September 2012, young people, including 18-year-old Ryan Plambeck and 17-year-old Calder McCormick, gathered at the home of Stephen and Lidia Pearson on Salt Spring Island. The couple were parents to teenage children.

After spending time at the party, the boys ventured across the street to a neighbour’s lot. There, they found an unlocked, uninsured for-sale automobile with the keys inside. They took the car. Plambeck drove with McCormick in the passenger seat. Before long, they lost control of the car and crashed off the road. Plambeck died and McCormick suffered catastrophic, life-changing injuries, including a severe traumatic brain injury.

In 2014, McCormick filed a lawsuit against the Pearsons and several other parties. The lawsuit alleged that the Pearsons breached their duty of care to their underage guests by allowing them to drink on their property and failing to stop them from leaving while impaired.

“Basically, [they] did nothing to stop him from ending up on the road,” one of McCormick’s personal injury lawyers told CBC News British Columbia.

The Pearsons have denied all allegations. However, the case against them appears to resemble Wardak v Froom more than Childs v Desormeaux, in that it involves an underage plaintiff who consumed alcohol on their premises. The BC Supreme Court’s decision could influence how and when hosts invite guests – particularly underage guests – to consume alcohol on their property.

Contact Will Davidson LLP to Learn More

If you or a member of your family has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with our experienced Oakville personal injury lawyers. Our team has expertise in a wide variety of personal injury claims, including matters involving social host liability. Reach out today to learn more.

Social Hosts Held Increasingly Liable for Letting Guests Drive Drunk After Party

Can I be held responsible for letting my friend drive drunk?” What is the responsibility of a social host when it comes to managing their guests’ inebriation? For over 10 years one decision of the Supreme Court of Canada has largely kept social hosts free from liability for their guests’ post-party misdemeanours. But courts, particularly in Ontario, have been finding creative ways to skirt around that decision and impose a duty of care on hosts.

Social host liability basics

Put simply, social host liability or ‘liquor liability’ means that a homeowner may potentially have to bear liability for the bodily harm or property damage caused by a guest in his or her drunken state after leaving their property.

The law is defined, for the most part, by the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Childs v. Desormeaux. In that case, a guest left a party in a severely inebriated state. He bade goodbye to his hosts, who showed concern over his condition, but nevertheless let him drive off. Driving with a blood alcohol level over three times the legal limit, he veered his vehicle into oncoming traffic, the collision killing one person, injuring six others and paralyzing a teenager.

The decision in Childs

In addition to the expected legal recourse against the driver, the victims pursued a claim against the hosts of the party. Their appeal was heard by the Supreme Court, with Chief Justice McLachlin delivering the following opinion, in 2006:

‘hosting a party at which alcohol is served does not, without more, establish the degree of proximity required to give rise to a duty of care on the hosts to third-party highway users…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.’

It meant social hosts were not responsible for monitoring their guests’ alcohol intake; and barring some exceptions, social hosts did not owe a duty of care to third parties, for instance, other road users. Though this exclusion beyond just road users.

Liability assessed on a case by case basis

So, can you be held responsible for letting your friend drive drunk? In a word, maybe. Courts in Ontario have been more amenable to finding social hosts liability, within the bounds of the exceptions under the Childs decision. One such is Wardak v. Froom, where Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice found that parents who had permitted a party in their house and – despite it being a bring your own bottle (BYOB) event – had a duty of care towards their guests.

Essentially, liability is assessed on a case by case basis. Courts scrutinize the facts of the case closely to determine whether the host owed a duty of care, and whether their discharge of responsibility met the standard of care expected.

This includes looking at the number of guests who were there; how old they were; whether anything during the party should have forewarned the hosts; whether there were any intervening circumstances between the guest departing and the accident occurring.

Oakville Personal Injury Lawyers

In essence, every case is different and a discussion with experienced lawyers is required to get an understanding if you or your loved one might be placed legally. At Will Davidson LLP, our team of lawyers is able to advise you effectively on liability or how best to navigate your claim for personal injury or property damage. Get in touch with us to schedule a free consultation.

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