When The Party Stops, Who's Left Holding the Ball?

What happens when you host a party at your house, guests bring their own alcohol, and then on their drive home, they cause a car crash, which injures another person? Could you be found liable to that third party for the driver's negligence? This post focuses on the topic of "Social Host Liability" and reviews decisions of the court on whether party hosts owe a duty of care to public members who may be injured by an intoxicated guest's negligence.

Social host liability is a body of law that started in the USA and extended to Canada. The surrounding case law in the US is of the view that as a social host, you can be found liable to a third party if you hosted a party and an intoxicated guest drove and injured them. However, you have to do something that contributes to the impaired driving to be found liable. Canadian courts have tended to follow this same line of reasoning.

One of the early Canadian cases surrounding this body of law is Baumeister v Drake, [1986] 4 BCLR (2d) 382 (BCSC) (CanLII). In this case, the Plaintiff, Baumeister attended a graduation party at the Carefoots' home. 200 uninvited guests crashed the party, including Drake. After the party ended, Drake, who was intoxicated at the time, drove 8 teenagers home. As he made an abrupt right turn, 3 passengers in the bed of the truck were thrown from the truck and Baumeister sustained severe injuries. He sued the Carefoots for social host liability.

In determining whether the Carefoots owed Baumeister a duty of care, the court found that it was not reasonable for the Carefoots to have prevented 200 unexpected celebrated guests from drinking their own liquor. Further, the Carefoots did not permit, induce or encourage either of the parties to get themselves into a dangerous state of impairment. As a result, there was no duty found on the Carefoots and the action was dismissed against them. As such, we have the early Canadian decisions somewhat agreeing with the US courts.

In the next case, Wince v Ball, [1996] 136 DLR (4th) 104 (CanLII) (ABQB), Karen Ball, aged 18, hosted a party for her teenage friends in her family home. Her father, Bruce, gave her permission and removed all of the alcohol from his house but did not prohibit alcohol to be brought by guests. Duncan Johnson, a minor, was intoxicated when he left the party. He accepted a ride from a sober designated driver but on their way home, he asked to be dropped off at his car. While driving, he struck Wince and injured him. In determining whether the case against Mr. Ball should be dismissed, Mr. Ball argued that even if he had been awake, he would not have done anything differently because to his knowledge, he thought Duncan was going home with a sober designated driver. The court agreed with Mr. Ball. In assessing this case, the court stated that the law has not evolved enough from Baumeister to impose liability on a parent for hosting a teenage drinking party. The Plaintiffs here were not able to show that aside from hosting the party, Mr. Ball did or omitted to do something which contributed to the drunken driving.

The most recent and famous Canadian case on this matter is Childs v Desormeaux, 2006 SCC 18 (CanLII). In this case, the Defendant, after leaving a bring your own booze party hosted by Dwight Courrier and Julie Zimmerman, drove his vehicle and collided head-on with a vehicle, wherein Zoe Childs was a passenger and as a result, she was paralyzed from the waist down. The court decided the host owed Zoe no duty of care to prevent Desormeaux from driving.

In determining whether a duty was established, the court found that social hosts were distinguished from commercial hosts. The court then concluded there was no duty of care owed because the injury was not reasonably foreseeable and there was no positive duty to act.

Therefore, the law now states that social hosts will not be found liable unless there is a positive duty of care and they have breached it. There are three situations of positive duties of care that the courts have outlined:

  1. Where a defendant intentionally attracts and invited third parties to an inherent and obvious risk that he or she has created or controls.
  2. In situations of paternalistic relationships, such as parent-child or teacher-student.
  3. Where there is a defendant who either exercises a public function or engages in a commercial enterprise that includes implied responsibilities to the public at large.

If there is no positive duty, then the courts usually do not like to interfere in the autonomy of a party and do not expect others to do so either.

There you have the current law on social host liability. It is an evolving area of law and it will be interesting to see if it changes in the next decade.

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