Alcohol, Cannabis and Holiday Hosting

Written by Jordan Assaraf, Associate & Lawyer

If you are hosting a holiday party in the next few weeks, there is some important hosting-related news you would be interested in hearing. The Ontario Court of Appeal has reaffirmed its view of a host’s liability for their guests during a party. Social hosts of gatherings where alcohol is consumed are potentially liable for any harmful actions of intoxicated guests under a requisite duty of care.

On November 7, 2018, the Ontario Court of Appeal in Williams v. Richard overturned the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment and dismiss the claims, and ordered that the matter proceed to trial. The trial will determine whether the facts of the case support the argument that the social hosts breached their duty of care.

In this blog post, first I will highlight the key issues in this important case, and then briefly explore how this case’s example could affect social hosting this season where cannabis is consumed.

 

An Unfortunate Accident

As colleagues and friends, Mark Williams and Jake Richard regularly drank beer together after the work day. On October 18, 2011, after spending about three hours drinking in Eileen Richard’s garage (Jake’s mother), Mr. Williams had consumed an estimated 15 beers. Inebriated and in no condition to drive, Mr. Williams nonetheless returned to his home, packed his children in his car and drove their babysitter home.

During the drive home from the babysitter’s house, Mr. Williams crashed into the rear of a stationary tractor towing a trailer. He died from injuries sustained after being ejected from the vehicle. His children survived and suffered from personal injuries as a result of the accident.

In two subsequent legal actions, Mr. William’s widow, Cheryl Williams, sued Mr. and Ms. Richard on her own behalf for damages under the Family Law Act, and on behalf of her three minor children for personal injuries sustained by the children. Both actions are based on a claim that the Richards breached their requisite duty of care as social hosts.

 

The Lower Court Decision and the Appeal

The lower court judge dismissed both claims on a motion for summary judgment, finding that a requisite duty of care had not been established. Furthermore, even if it had been established, the judge stated that the duty of care would have ended once Mr. Williams arrived at home to pick up his children and their babysitter.

In setting aside the lower court’s decision, the Court of Appeal reaffirmed that Childs is the leading case in terms of social host liability. The Supreme Court’s ruling in that case focused on two critical issues: foreseeability (a host’s knowledge that a guest’s level of intoxication or intentions to engage in a potentially dangerous activity that causes harm) and proximity (“something more” in the facts of a case that necessitates action on the part of the host).

The Court of Appeal determined there was enough conflicting evidence to require a trial to decide whether it was foreseeable that Mr. Williams would drive home and subsequently drive the babysitter home. In terms of proximity, in Childs the Supreme Court noted that simply holding a house party where alcohol is served is not in itself an invitation to participate in highly risky actions. “Something more” is required to establish a risk requiring positive action from the host – and there is no definitive list of what “something more” includes. The Court of Appeal suggested that case law in this regard exists on a spectrum and the facts of each case would be used to determine if the type of social gathering was inherently risky.

 

Adding Cannabis to the Mix?

Although there is no blanket duty of care for social hosts, with Williams v. Richard preceding to trial it is important to remember that social hosts may be liable for their guests’ actions under certain circumstances determined by foreseeability and proximity, as described above.

That said, these types of rulings could possibly be extended to the Cannabis Act as well. Now that recreational cannabis use is legal, it will likely become more common at social gatherings. Yet, as I’ve written in an earlier blog, unlike alcohol, the active ingredients in cannabis that cause impairment are metabolized differently depending on the frequency of use, in which case it may be far more difficult to recognize impairment from recreational cannabis in your guests. Future trials testing these facts may provide some clarity in the case law, but for now a great deal of uncertainty remains.

 

In conclusion, as a host this holiday season, it is better to be proactively protect the safety of both your guests and yourself. Take reasonable steps to ensure that your party is not inherently risky and help any guest who may be intoxicated to find a way to get home safely. Encourage them to stay on your couch or call them a cab. Never let guests drive while impaired by any substance. Let’s keep the roads safe this holiday season.

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