There has been much debate in Alberta about the responsibilities of social hosts: regular people just like you and I who host events at their home and supply alcoholic beverages to their guests.

It goes without saying that social gatherings happen all of the time across the province; however, the legal consequences of these commonplace social gatherings are rarely considered. In fact, it is fair to say that the only time the average person even thinks about their legal responsibility as a social host is when they are directly confronted with an intoxicated guest who has the keys to their vehicle and is more than willing to drive. Or worse – when it is far too late and a tragedy has already occurred.

Social Host Liability Insurance

What happens when a guest becomes intoxicated from the host’s liquor in the host’s home and then decides to get in their vehicle and drive home? Does the social host have a positive duty to act? In other words, does the social host have a legal obligation to physically prevent their guest from driving while intoxicated? If they do not prevent their guest from driving while intoxicated will they be held liable for any injuries and/or deaths caused by their guest?

The 2006 Childs vs. Desormeaux Case

These difficult questions had to be answered by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in the 2006 landmark decision of Childs vs. Desormeaux. The facts of the case are very similar to the scenario outlined above. Desormeaux attended a private party hosted by friends. Desormeaux was known by his friends to be a heavy drinker. On that fateful night it is estimated that he consumed twelve beers over a period of two and a half hours. He drove his vehicle home from the party and collided head on with Childs, the Plaintiff, who was then paralyzed. The SCC noted that the host did not monitor Desormeaux’s drinking during the course of the evening despite the fact that he was known to be a heavy drinker. Ultimately, the SCC ruled that the social host was not liable for Child’s injuries caused by Desormeaux.

In other words, the SCC did not impose a ‘positive duty to act’ on social hosts. Thus, Canadian social hosts do not have a legal obligation to physically prevent their guests from driving while intoxicated. Nor do they have a legal obligation to monitor their guest’s alcohol consumption. The SCC’s decision in Childs suggests that Canadian tort law is not prepared to impose a duty of care on social hosts. To do so would require social hosts to intrude on the autonomy of their guests.

The Childs decision seems to have been influenced by the incredible power of tort law to modify people’s behaviour. After all, if the SCC had ruled the other way the implications would have been huge. It would make the now commonplace social gatherings very impractical to host. It would essentially deter social gatherings with alcoholic beverages from taking place. Would you host a social event with alcoholic beverages if you knew you could be held liable for the actions of your guests even when they leave your home? Would you host a gathering if you felt the need to have each of your guests sign a waiver form before they attended your event? It is fair to say that most Canadians would be very leery of hosting any type of social gathering if they knew they could be held liable for the actions of their intoxicated guests.

Although the SCC ruled in Childs ruled that there is no legal obligation for social hosts to prevent their guests from either becoming intoxicated or driving while intoxicated, the case is confined to its specific facts. The SCC has left the question of liability open to other scenarios that may be a little different than the one presented in Childs. What happens if the social host organizes a drinking game where guests feel compelled to drink more than they normally would? What about weddings where there is an open bar? All of these are scenarios that the SCC has not yet provided an answer on. They are simply scenarios where a social host could be found liable on the right facts, according to a close reading of the Childs judgment.

Office Party – are employers liable?

In 1996 the BC Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v Nike Canada LTD. that the employer Nike was in fact liable for injuries to a third party caused by one of their guests/employees that was served beer at Nike’s event. The difference? The Defendant in the Nike case was not only a social host but was also the employer of their guest. This created a relationship of creation and control that allowed for liability to be established. Nike was creating the situation (it was their event) and they were also supplying the alcohol to their employee (control). One can make the argument that because it is an employer offering the alcohol the employee/guest might feel more inclined to accept the alcoholic beverages than they normally would in a social setting with friends.

For the time being however, social hosts in Canada generally do not have a legal obligation to prevent their guests from becoming intoxicated or driving while intoxicated. The SCC made it clear that adult guests do not leave their autonomy at the door when they enter a party.