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.