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When Are Social Hosts Liable for the Actions of Their Guests?


‘Tis the season of holiday parties and eggnog – and, unfortunately, the season of inebriated driving. It is important to remember that as a social host, you may be liable for the actions of your inebriated guests, even after they have left your home.

In the landmark case of Childs v. Desormeaux, 2006 SCC 18, Julie Zimmerman and Dwight Courrier hosted a New Year’s party hosted at their home. Guests brought their own alcohol to the party. Desmond Desormeaux, known to the hosts as a heavy drinker, drank approximately 12 beers over the course of 2.5 hours. As Desormeaux left the party, Courrier walked him to the car and asked, “Are you okay, brother?” Desormeaux responded, “No problem,” and drove off. Desormeaux collided with another car, killing a passenger of the other car and paralyzing the plaintiff, 18-year-old Zoe Childs.

The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously held that Zimmerman and Courrier did not owe a duty of care to the potential victims, such as Zoe Childs, of their inebriated guest’s actions. The Court noted that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Desormeaux could cause harm to the plaintiff. Zimmerman and Courrier did not know that Desormeaux’s blood alcohol limit was over the legal limit, and merely knowing that Desormeaux had a history of heavy drinking did not make the hosts responsible. As Chief Justice McLachlin wrote, “a host is entitled to respect the autonomy of a guest.”

However, the Court established a very important exception: social hosts may be liable if they create or exacerbate the risk, e.g. by serving alcohol to a visibly inebriated person, or encouraging a guest to drive after drinking.  Social hosts may have a duty to take positive action and stop a guest from driving while inebriated when:

  1. The host invites others to subject themselves to a risk that he or she has created and controls, such as by serving alcohol to guests; or,
  2. There is a paternalistic relationship involved, such as when parents allow their underage children to host parties where alcohol is involved

Since 2006, few cases have tested the exceptions set out in Childs. The case of Oyagi v. Grossman, [2007] BCJ No 1807 (Ont SCJ) involved the possible exception of paternalistic supervision. In Oyagi, the homeowners went on vacation and left their teenage son at home without supervision. Their son hosted a party, advertising it on the internet and providing alcohol to guests. He arranged for his friends to stand at the entrance of the house as “security” and charge an admission fee.  However, the party quickly got out of hand and, as unknown guests started showing up, items began to be stolen from the house. One such thief drove away from the defendants’ home and seriously injured Krystina Oyagi in a collision.

The homeowners brought a motion to have the case dismissed. The Court refused to dismiss the case, holding that the homeowners may be liable for the actions of the driver, despite being away on vacation. The events may have fallen under the second exception, i.e. where a paternalistic relationship is involved. However, the case did not make it to trial, and therefore it is still an open question under Ontario law.

Similarly, in Hamilton v. Kember, 165 ACWS (3d) 246, the homeowners allowed their underage daughter to host a party where they knew alcohol was going to be consumed. A guest drove away from the party and was involved in a motor vehicle accident. The Court held that it was not necessary for hosts to actually serve alcohol to guests in order for be liable for the actions of inebriated guests. “BYOB” (bring your own booze) parties could still give rise to situations where social hosts owe a duty of care to potential victims of their guests.

As courts have not yet fully decided the extent of a host’s responsibility for his or her guests, anyone hosting a holiday party should err on the side of caution and encourage guests to keep off the roads.

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