Many employers and their staff look forward to their
company's labour day picnic, but do you know that unless
sufficient safeguards are in place, the social event of the year
can turn into the lawsuit of the century. If you are planning to
host a social gathering at which alcohol is served, you need to be
aware that you may be exposing yourself to significant financial
liability for the actions of an impaired guest from harm caused by
drinking and driving. The liability can arise both from the actions
of your employees while attending your company's function and
long after they have departed.
It is well established in Canada that bars, pubs, restaurants
and other commercial alcohol providers owe a legal duty to take
positive steps to protect the public from the drunken driving of
their patrons. For a social host, the liability is more limited.
What about where the event is sponsored by an employer? Employers
have wide ranging legal duties to ensure that the workplace is safe
for their employees. What happens when the employer hosts an event
which is both a social event and a work event? Alcohol served in
the workplace in the context of a firm sponsored event is risky
In one case, a judge ruled on the duty of care owed by an
employer to an employee who drove home drunk after an office
Christmas party. A secretary attended an office party for clients
and staff at the premises of her employer. Guests served themselves
from an open bar and no one was in charge of monitoring alcohol
consumption. The secretary was in attendance as both an employee
and a guest. She consumed alcohol at the party, and later cleaned
up the office after the party ended. She then left work, went to a
pub and continued drinking. She then drove home several hours later
in a snowstorm, seriously injuring herself when she drove into
oncoming traffic. She was convicted of impaired driving. The
employee successfully launched a legal claim against her employer.
The court held that the employer and the pub were jointly
responsible and imposed a judgment against them of nearly
In another case, a B.C. employer was held substantially
responsible for injuries to an employee who consumed a large
quantity of beer supplied by his employer during working hours. The
employee later drove home and was in a single vehicle accident
which rendered him a quadriplegic. The court held that the employer
was primarily responsible for the employee's injuries even
though the employee stopped at a bar after leaving work and
continued to consume alcohol. The employer was found to have
breached the duty of care it owed to its employee.
What does this mean? Our courts have said that social hosts
generally do not owe a duty to the public to take positive steps to
prevent intoxicated guests from driving. One might expect even
"social" hosts to be responsible for the harm done by
their guests if the hosts themselves are reckless or aggressively
ply their guests with drink. However, the duty of an employer to an
employee is higher and closer to that of a "commercial"
for profit host.
Whatever the circumstances, one would do well to recognize that
where innocent people are harmed, the courts have a natural
tendency to seek to hold someone accountable. If the person most
directly responsible for causing harm is unable to pay, be aware
that the focus will shift to the host and that, with the benefit of
hindsight, it might be possible to conclude that the host's
conduct created or contributed to the risk. Measures an employer
should consider for the annual summer party include:
Hold parties at non-work locations;
Use professionally staffed "no host" bars instead of
"open" bars and provide a selection of non-alcoholic
Provide a limited number of drink tickets for employees where
alcohol is provided by the employer;
Promote responsible alcohol consumption and remind employees
about their personal responsibility not to drink and drive;
Provide taxi chits or bus tickets and discourage employees from
driving their vehicles to the party; and
Lead by example with responsible and sober management.
Regardless of what your legal duty might be, common sense
dictates that, if you are going to host a party where alcohol is
consumed, you should take steps to ensure your guests drink
responsibly. If an employee does end up becoming intoxicated
despite all of your efforts consider taking the following
Offer a safe ride home;
Take away the employee's car keys;
Call a taxi for the employee and take reasonable steps to
ensure they take it; and
If the employee refuses your assistance and attempts to drive
home, call the police.
Have a safe labour day and make your party one to remember for
all the right reasons.
The foregoing provides only an overview. Readers are
cautioned against making any decisions based on this material
alone. Rather, a qualified lawyer should be consulted.
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