In its much-anticipated decision, Childs v. Desormeaux1 Canada’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada, has unanimously held that a social host does not generally owe a duty of care to a third party injured by a guest who has consumed alcohol. The central legal issue raised by the appeal was whether social hosts who invite guests to an event where alcohol is served owe a legal duty of care to third parties who may be injured by intoxicated guests.
On New Year’s Eve, 1998, two homeowners hosted a party where alcohol was consumed. The party had been a "bring-your-own-booze" event and the hosts served a small glass of champagne during the evening. After leaving the party, an impaired Desormeaux was involved in a collision with another vehicle. One passenger was killed and three others – including the plaintiff, Childs, - were seriously injured.
Unlike commercial hosts under a strict regulatory regime and statutory duty to monitor the alcohol consumption and intoxication of patrons, the court held that people who open their home to guests who then consume alcohol and drive owe no such duty to third parties on the highways. Commercial hosts are those who serve or provide alcohol for profit such as bars and restaurants whereas social hosts are generally those who serve alcohol or provide a venue for alcohol to be consumed but are not selling or profiting from its consumption as in the case of house parties.
Commercial hosts were distinguished from social hosts by the court in three ways. First, commercial hosts have the ability to monitor the alcohol consumption of patrons. Patrons expect the establishment to have kept track of their liquor purchases in order to provide a bill at the end of the evening and liquor regulators can require servers to take training so that they are aware of the signs of intoxication and can thus act accordingly. Second, legislative enactments regulate the commercial sale and consumption of alcohol. Finally, commercial establishments make a profit from the sale of alcohol. This incentive to serve, and over-serve, alcohol to patrons for added profit is balanced by the imposed duty to monitor alcohol consumption in the interest of public safety.
The Supreme Court of Canada held that the injury to Childs was not reasonably foreseeable by the social hosts on the facts of the case. However, even if it were foreseeable, no duty would arise because the wrong alleged was a failure to act, an omission, and there is no positive duty for the hosts to monitor drinking or prevent a guest from driving. A positive duty to act has been found to exist in other cases where aspects of the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant establish a special link or proximity. No such relationship existed between the plaintiff and the defendant homeowners in this circumstance.
According to the Supreme Court of Canada, guests at a private party are autonomous individuals who make choices and assume the risks of their actions. Simply, "a person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party does not park his autonomy at the door…. 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." Each guest is personally responsible for his or her alcohol consumption choices and the host of a party where alcohol is served is not under a duty to members of the public.
However, the door to social host liability is not entirely closed. If a social host was to personally undertake to monitor alcohol consumption or prevent intoxicated guests from driving it could be possible for the host to incur liability to third parties injured by the guests. In the Childs case, there was no evidence that the host made this sort of undertaking or that the guests relied on the hosts for this purpose. The Supreme Court made reference to the position several states in the United States have taken which imposes a prima facie duty of care on social hosts who continue to serve alcohol to a visibly inebriated person knowing that he or she will be driving home – thereby creating a risk to third parties. This issue was also not decided in the Childs case and left open for future consideration.
1  S.C.J. No. 18
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.
To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.
Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.
In Irwin v. Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, 2015 ABCA 396, the Alberta Court of Appeal found that the "ABVMA" failed to afford procedural fairness to a veterinarian undergoing an incapacity assessment.
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).