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Social Host Liability

A good host can make all the difference to a guest’s experience in a social setting. From planning the menu, to choosing a playlist, to circulating the room and ensuring all guests have what they need for a good time, being a thoughtful, considerate and attentive host is important. A responsible host also takes everyone’s safety into account - not only during the gathering, but as guests make their way home. 

But what if a person is so lax in their hosting responsibilities that it becomes outright negligence? When a host owes a duty of care to their guests but fails to provide them with reasonable safety, they can be held liable for damages if the guest suffers a serious injury - even if the injury does not occur on their property. Moreover, the host could even be found liable if a third party is hurt by a guest’s actions if the host was negligent in their duty of care.

If you or a loved one has suffered an injury at a social gathering or while returning home from a gathering, you may be able to recover compensation and damages from a negligent host. If the injury occurred as a result of an intoxicated person’s actions, it may also be in your interest to investigate whether a social host might share in the liability for your losses.

Social host liability categories.

Private gatherings. 

If a person hosts a private social gathering where guests are consuming alcoholic beverages or other intoxicating substances (such as marijuana), the host has a duty to care for their well-being. This duty is to ensure their reasonable safety while at the gathering (including keeping the premises free from hazards) and as they leave the gathering.

A responsible host should, for example, take precautions to ensure that guests are not served to the point of intoxication and ensure that any guest who may be inebriated is provided options to allow them time to sober up before leaving the gathering. These options might include:

  • Offering to let them sleep it off at the event space or a hotel.
  • Finding them a safe way home (a designated driver, a taxi or car share service).

Permitting an obviously intoxicated guest to drive would be dangerous, and if the guest refused requests to refrain from driving, a responsible host should alert authorities to protect their guest and others from harm they could cause.

Of course, a guest is not absolved of their own responsibility to act in a reasonably safe manner. Such responsibility would include:

  • Not consuming substances to the point of intoxication.
  • Having their own plan for a safe return home.

If a guest drove away from a party after drinking excessively and caused an accident as a result, that guest could have primary liability and possibly full liability.

Canadian courts have been reluctant to find private social hosts liable for damages that have occurred to an intoxicated guest after they’ve left the gathering, or to anyone the guest may have harmed in the period immediately following the event. However, courts have suggested that there could be situations and very specific circumstances where private social hosts might be found liable. 

For example, courts have considered whether the owners of a house in which guests (including some who were underage) were invited to a “bring-you-own-booze” party, could be liable for an intoxicated guest’s post-party injuries. In this case, the defendant homeowners did not serve alcohol, encourage the plaintiff to drink, or witness the drinking first-hand. However, a judge dismissed a defence request for summary judgment, stating that the issue of whether there was a duty of care, and whether that duty was fulfilled by the defendants, was a matter that should be decided at a trial based on evidence.

Moreover, if a host:

  • Intentionally serves an impaired person alcohol and creates a foreseeable harm.
  • Shows a blatant disregard for safety.
  • A special link or close proximate relationship exists.

Courts have stated that they could be liable for resulting damages. Although commercial establishments are held to a much higher standard of care for their guests, social hosts of private gatherings can open themselves to liability depending on the specific facts surrounding an incident.

Employer liability.

Whether it’s a holiday office party, a retirement party or celebrating a birthday with some alcoholic beverages at the end of the work day, employers often act as social hosts for events for their employees. Like hosts of private functions, they may be liable for harm that occurs connected to a guest’s actions at the gathering.

For example, if an employee becomes inebriated at an office party, leaves the party and drives a motor vehicle under the influence, and gets involved in a motor vehicle accident where they or others are injured, the employer may be found partly liable for damages. Similarly, if the event creates conditions that leads to a sexual assault or harassment, the employer may be found to have vicarious liability (strict liability due to the employment relationship, where there is fault regardless of intent).

For an employer to be liable, three conditions must be satisfied for the court. The first two are usually straightforward. The third is often contentious:

  • An employment relationship exists.
  • The employee commits a tort (a wrongful act leading to civil liability)
  • The tort took place within the scope of employment. 

Using the examples above, if it was clear that a tort was committed and the person committing the tort was employed by “the employer,” the success of a civil suit may come down to whether the party took place within the scope of employment. Was the office party voluntary or mandatory? Did it occur during regular work hours? Is there a sufficient connection between the acts of the employer (creating or heightening risk) and the tort act committed by the employee?

Commercial host liability.

Commercial establishments that sell, serve or facilitate consumption of intoxicating substances owe guests a certain duty of care. Some examples of these establishments include:

  • Restaurants.
  • Nightclubs, pubs, bars, cabarets.
  • Festivals.
  • Event spaces and conference centres.
  • Catering services.

Notably, if a commercial establishment sells and/or serves alcohol to an individual to a point where they become intoxicated, the owners/operators/staff who facilitated the drinking could be held liable if the patron harms themselves or third parties. The Liquor Licence Act provides statutory confirmation of this duty.

Since every person responds to alcohol differently depending on body type and tolerance, judging when a person is nearing intoxication or past that point is a challenging responsibility - even for commercial hosts who see drinking regularly. Many licensed establishments insist on programs such as Smart Serve to train staff how to monitor consumption and gauge intoxication. These programs also provide tips on risk management to increase the likelihood that any patron who is intoxicated is able to get home safely through the help of sober friends, designated drivers or taxis, or stay at a nearby hotel until they are sober. 

If a person who consumes alcohol to the point of intoxication at a commercial establishment injures themselves or others while intoxicated, the intoxicated person will likely be found to not only have contributed to the incident through their own negligence, but be considered primarily responsible for their actions. However, making a claim against a commercial host who has been negligent in their duty of care can result in additional avenues of recovery of losses and damages, and access to the liability insurance coverage of the host establishment. 

How can a host liability lawyer help me?

Knowing which statutes, case law and limitations apply to the accident that caused your injury can be confusing. If you or a loved one has been injured by a host’s negligent actions or inaction, Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers can be counted on to guide you through this challenging time. With expertise in host liability cases, our knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted advocates are ready to help you make a claim for the compensation you deserve.

When you contact a member of the Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers team, we will listen with empathy as you explain what happened, offer information on your options, and explain what we can do to help you as you rebuild your life after a tragic incident. Your initial consultation is always free and you are under no obligation. If you choose to work with us as your legal representative, we will provide fierce advocacy, compassionate care, and strive to make the claims process as stress-free as possible.

With expertise in host liability law, Gluckstein Personal Injury Lawyers in Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara, and Barrie have the knowledge, experience and skill to help you access compensation for your losses. Contact us today to learn more about what our commitment to full-circle care can mean for you and your loved ones.

Ontario Social Host Liability Lawyers.

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