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Having A Party? You need to know about Social Host Liability

Hosting a party is a great way to stay connected to friends, provided you’re a responsible host.

Imagine that everyone is over at your house, having a few cocktails, some nibbles and a lot of great conversation. But one of your guests drinks a few too many cocktails and doesn’t eat enough. You don’t notice them leaving, and fifteen minutes later, you hear the sound of sirens.

Regardless of fault, duty or actual legal responsibility, you’d feel a little bit guilty if you had a hand in that, wouldn’t you?

In the aim of avoiding this situation happening to you, here’s a little background on social host liability and a few tips to make sure that your holiday parties go off without a hitch.

What Is Social Host Liability?

This is a lesser known area of personal injury law that refers to the responsibility and duties that a person has when hosting an event where alcohol is served. Notably, this could extend to marijuana in the future, in Ontario, but for now, let’s focus on drinking.

Part of the reason it’s not well known is that there haven’t been a lot of cases where a host was found liable following the actions of one of their guests that resulted in an accident and injuries or worse.

For one thing, the courts haven’t been willing to create the chilling effect that formal duties would impose. People might choose not to have parties at their home for fear of the liability. That would be a sad state as house parties are part of the social fabric that we’ve all grown up with.

As the law stands, there is no real ‘duty of care’ that arises where hosts know or ought to have known, that the guest who was about to drive was impaired.

The most well-known case in this area was in 2006, Childs v. Desormeaux. The victim of a drunk driving accident sued the host of the party for damages (as well as the driver) for damages.

The Supreme Court concluded that social hosts did not owe a duty of care to third parties who are injured by their intoxicated guests. The decision did leave the door open to “cases in three situations in which the foreseeability of harm is present. One of those situations is when there is a paternalistic relationship between the plaintiff and defendant.

In a more recent situation that is making the news, Wardak v. Froom, “the defendants, Stephen and Carol Froom, held a party for their son, Graeme, celebrating his 19th birthday in 2011. The plaintiff, Dean Wardak, who was 18 at the time, had been drinking at the party before he walked home, got in his car and crashed into a tree. The accident left him quadriplegic.” Judge Matheson, in Ontario Superior Court denied the dismissal of the defendant’s summary judgement motion, and “determined the Childs decision did not preclude a finding of duty of care in this case, as Wardak was not a third party but a guest, and that the case falls within “the contemplated paternalistic duty.” The fact that he was drinking underage was a factor, but this nonetheless could signal a shift to outline circumstances where social hosts might have a legal duty of care.

This is in contrast to commercial hosts, like restaurants and bars, that are held to a higher standard. Partly because they are profit making enterprises, commercial hosts have a standard of care that they have to adhere to with respect to their patrons. Staff have to be trained and possess Smart Serve certification if they are going to work with alcoholic beverages, in Ontario.

But going back to what I said at the beginning: regardless of legal liability, you don’t want to have on your conscience an accident situation involving one of your guests and driving drunk.

So what can you do to ensure that your guests and the public at large are safe, short of administering breathalyzer tests at the door?

Tips On How To Keep Your Party Guests Safe

Ask your guests to have a designated driver or come by taxi — you can’t, of course, enforce the issue but sometimes a nod is as good as a wink.

Make sure you serve food with alcohol — having some food will help ensure that people are at least not drinking on an empty stomach, which worsens the effects of alcohol.

Do the serving — you can better control the amount each person is drinking if you are doing the serving yourself. With that in mind, it’s also better if you remain sober during your party. If it’s a big event, you might want to consider hiring professional bartenders who have Smart Serve certification.

Turn off the taps long before the end of the party — impose a ‘last call’ and switch to non-alcoholic beverages for everyone at some point that you decide on.

Have a chat with each guest before they leave — look for signs of intoxication and be prepared to take their keys away if need be. Better an angry friend than a dead one. Make sure you’ve got the guest bedroom or the sofa ready and waiting for someone who shouldn’t be driving.

Certainly, you shouldn’t be afraid to host a party but do it the smart way so that neither you nor any of your guests have any regrets the next day.

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