Social Host Liability Claims

Social Host Liability Claims

Social Host Liability Claims


In 2006, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in Childs v Desormeaux, a case involving social host liability. On January 1, 1999, after leaving a private party in Ottawa, hosted by Julie Zimmerman and Dwight Courrier, Desmond Desormeaux drove his car into oncoming traffic and collided with another vehicle, killing one passenger and seriously injuring three other passengers. One of these passengers was Zoe Childs, who suffered a permanent spinal cord injury. The party was a New Year’s potluck to which guests had brought their own alcohol; Desormeaux brought a 24-bottle case of beer. Desormeaux was almost three times over the legal blood alcohol level when the accident occurred, and at the trial, he admitted to having consumed approximately a dozen beers at the party over a relatively short period of time.


Eventually, Desormeaux pleaded guilty to the criminal offences and was sentenced to ten years in jail. Childs, who sustained serious and permanent injuries in the crash, civilly sued Desormeaux. She also sued Zimmerman and Courrier, on the grounds that, as hosts of the party, they had supplied alcohol to Desormeaux and allowed him to drive away, while obviously impaired. The liability of commercial hosts in these types of situations had long been established, with courts ruling that commercial hosts such as bars and restaurants owe a duty of care to patrons and third parties and are responsible for taking steps to prevent patrons from causing injuries.



Court Rulings


However, both the original trial judge and the Ontario Court of Appeal found Zimmerman and Courrier not liable for Childs’s injuries. The trial judge determined that although the hosts did owe a duty of care to Childs, they could not be held liable since this would constitute a burden on social hosts that would outweigh potential benefits for users of the road. The judge reasoned that placing this burden on social hosts would require them to monitor each guest’s consumption and assess their intoxication levels at arrival and departure. In addition, hosts would have to stop guests from driving, and to call police if they refused to comply. On appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal disagreed that a duty of care from the hosts to Childs existed in this case, stating that because the hosts did not know Desormeaux was intoxicated when he left, they could not foresee that he or any third party would be injured.


When the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada, it, too, found Zimmerman and Courrier not liable, on the grounds that they were not able to foresee that he would drive a car and get involved in an accident; that they did not serve the alcohol to Desormeaux, and that, unlike commercial hosts, there is no statutory duty for private hosts to monitor guests’ alcohol consumption.


What Does This Mean for Social Host Liability?


At first glance, it would seem that social hosts will not be found liable in these types of situations. However, there may still be circumstances where private hosts could be found liable. For example, if hosts “create” or “exacerbate” risk during the course of a party, a court could rule differently. And while some decisions in this case indicated that the hosts did not have a duty of care to a third party, would the ruling have been different if the guest himself had been injured?


The case of Williams v Richard provides another perspective. Mark Williams and Jake Richard, were work colleagues who often got together after work to drink beer, met at the home of Richards’ mother on October 18, 2011. Williams drank approximately fifteen cans of beer over the course of three hours, then drove home. He loaded his children and their babysitter into the car, intending to drive the babysitter to her home. On the way, he crashed into the back of a stationary tractor-trailer. Williams died, and three of his children were seriously injured. A suit was brought by the Williams family on behalf of the children.


At trial, the judge dismissed the claims against Jake Richard and his mother, citing the Childs decision, and holding that the duty of care had not been established. However, there are some key differences between the two situations. In Childs, the hosts had many guests and didn’t provide the alcohol. In Williams, there were only two people drinking, the host provided all of the alcohol, and had every opportunity to monitor his friend’s sobriety level and observe his intention to drive. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Ontario Court of Appeals set the trial judge’s order aside. The Court of Appeals reasoning was that the trial judge failed to apply the elements of duty of care analysis properly. These include: Was the injury reasonably foreseeable? Was there a paternalistic relationship between the parties? Did the host create a risky environment? Is the duty negated by broader policy decisions?


The case is ongoing, but it has the potential to change the way we currently view social host liability claims.


Contact a personal injury lawyer today if you have been injured in circumstances similar to these.