With St. Patrick’s Day upon us and Covid restrictions easing, many will be celebrating by hosting a party and serving alcohol. While commercial host liability has long been established in Ottawa and Ontario, many social hosts do not think about the potential for liability when serving alcohol to their guests. Under the current state of the law, what obligations, if any, are on a social host who serves alcohol?
Childs v. Desormeaux
The leading case in Canadian law regarding social host liability is Childs v. Desormeaux. In that case, the Supreme Court of Canada held that a social host does not have a duty of care towards third parties injured by an adult guest who drove while impaired. However, while the court refused to recognize a duty of care, it did leave open the possibility of one existing under a different factual matrix. Specifically, the court stated: “It might be argued that a host who continues to serve alcohol to a visibility inebriated person knowing that he or she will be driving home has become implicated in the creation or enhancement of a risk sufficient to give rise to a prima facie duty of care to third parties…”. But merely “hosting a party where alcohol is served, without more” will not create a prima facie duty of care on the host to third party highway users. Thus, unless a host is creating or exacerbating a risk, merely hosting a party where there is alcohol consumption will not create a duty of care.
The case law post-Childs indicates that the existence of social host liability may be dependent on
very fact-specific rulings. Specifically, the courts have been reluctant to grant summary judgement in cases where the fact situation differs from that in Childs.
In Wardak v. Froom, 2017 ONSC 1166, the defendants brought a motion for summary judgement, arguing that the case of Childs has firmly established that there is no social host liability in Canada. In that case, the claim arose from parents hosting a 19th birthday party for their son. The plaintiff, who was 18 years old, walked home intoxicated and then got into a single vehicle crash after driving his parents’ car later that night. In dismissing the application for summary judgment, the court stated: “It is apparent that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Childs does not preclude finding a duty of care where there is a paternalistic relationship or where the injured party is a guest rather than a third-party.”
In Sidhu (Litigation Guardian of) v. Hiebert, 2011 BCSC 1364, the defendant brought a motion for dismissal on the basis that he did not owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, who had been injured by a guest leaving the defendant’s party. The Court refused to grant the motion as there was “a great deal of conflicting evidence” concerning the defendant’s knowledge of the guest’s state of intoxication and held that the matter should be decided at trial.
In Williams v. Richard, 2018 ONCA 889, the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to uphold a motion for summary judgment and ordered the case to proceed to trial. While recognizing Childs as the leading case regarding liability of a social host, the court stated that determining whether a duty of care exists will depend on the facts of each case.
In Avila v. Couto, 2019 ONSC 400, the plaintiff brought an action for damages arising from a physical altercation with a guest during a house party. The hosts of the party brought a motion for summary judgement to dismiss the action against them. The court dismissed the motion, holding that the area of law regarding social host liability was still developing and that there was a genuine issue requiring trial. The court wrote: “I do not agree with the broad suggestion that Childs is binding authority that social hosts do not owe a duty to persons injured by an inebriated guest at a house party. I, like the court in Wardak v. Froom, consider that to still be an open question.”
However, in McCormick v. Plambeck, 2020 BCSC 881, the court refused to find a duty of care was owed by the hosts of a party to the 17-year-old plaintiff. The plaintiff had left the party on foot and was injured after getting into a vehicle stolen by another party-goer. The court ruled that the duty of care did not extend to the hosts foreseeing that a car who would be stolen by another party guest and driven unsafely.
Although the Supreme Court of Canada in Childs refused to recognize a duty of care on social hosts towards third-party highway users, post-Childs case law indicates that it may be open to courts to recognize a duty of care if the factual matrix warrants it. It is a reminder to all social hosts to act responsibly when providing and serving alcohol to their guests.