During the holiday season, responsible private party hosts take care to avoid intoxicated guests driving home. But what if one of them does and a crash results? Is the private party host personally liable? The Supreme Court of Canada settled this issue a decade ago, but many Canadians are unaware of the extent of their legal obligations.
In a case called Childs v. Desormeaux, a drunken party-goer drove from the event and collided head-on with another vehicle, killing one and seriously injuring three passengers of the oncoming car. One of the victims sued the party host. Their lawsuit failed at each court level, culminating with the Supreme Court. In a unanimous judgment, the Court said that hosts who take away the car keys of intoxicated guests may be exemplary, but the law does not impose a duty to assert themselves against other adults who make their own choices and must bear the consequences.
Unless the host has actively contributed to the risk, not just by making alcohol available to adult guests but in some way has personally increased the hazard through their own actions, they are not liable to the guests or their victims in the event of a crash on the way home.
The Court wrote:
"A person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party does not park his autonomy at the door. The guest remains responsible for his or her conduct. Short of active implication in the creation or enhancement of the risk, a host is entitled to respect the autonomy of a guest. The consumption of alcohol, and the assumption of the risks of impaired judgment, is in almost all cases a personal choice and an inherently personal activity. Absent the special considerations that may apply in the commercial context, when such a choice is made by an adult, there is no reason why others should be made to bear its costs."
The Court left undecided whether a host who continues to serve alcohol to a visibly inebriated guest knowing that they intend to drive home is sufficiently implicated in creating the risk to be held liable to innocent victims.
There four important things to bear in mind.
First, the Court was only addressing host liability in private parties. For example, commercial hosts like taverns or restaurants, or employers hosting workplace parties, or other hosts who are in a position of authority over the participants, may find themselves in an entirely different situation.
Second, it only applies to the provision of alcohol to adult guests.
Third, the host may be personally liable for injuries if they have played an active role in creating or worsening the risk – for example, actively encouraging guests to drink to excess and to drive home. Plying a visibly drunken guest with alcohol, knowing they will be driving home, may or may not be enough to attach liability to the host. But failing to intervene and stop an adult guest from pouring and consuming yet another drink will not normally trigger legal responsibility.
Fourth, and most important, friends should discourage friends from putting themselves or others at risk by drinking and driving. Fortunately, we do not let the boundaries of our personal liabilities define the full extent of our social obligations.
We wish all our readers an enjoyable – and safe – holiday season and the best of New Years.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.