Your Party, Your Problem: A Guide to Social Host Liability

January 1, 2010 | James B. Prior | Kitchener-Waterloo

You want
your party to be a good time – an opportunity for you and your guests to
unwind.  However, adding alcohol to any
event raises important issues about your guests’ safety and your legal liability. 

As a social
host, you may be held liable for alcohol-related mishaps that occur at your
event.  There are two major types of
claims.  First, you may be held liable
for providing alcohol to visibly intoxicated individuals who subsequently
injure themselves or others.  Second,
even if you do not provide alcohol, you may be held liable as an occupier for
alcohol-related injuries that occur on your property.

Provider Liability

No one has
ever been held liable for serving alcohol in a reasonable manner, even if the
individual served later causes or suffers an alcohol-related injury.  The law does not prevent you from serving
alcohol or being a gracious host. 
Rather, liability is limited to individuals who serve or provide alcohol
to a person who they know, or ought to know, is already intoxicated.  In this regard, the Supreme Court of Canada
has held that provider liability requires over-service of alcohol plus some
other risk factor, such as obvious signs of intoxication or knowledge that the
intoxicated person plans to drive.

Earlier
social host cases were consistent with the general principles of provider
liability. More recently, however, the Supreme Court of Canada commented on the
issue of provider liability in social host cases in Childs v. Desormeaux
Although this case involved a homeowner’s liability for hosting a BYOB
party, the Supreme Court went on to suggest that social hosts who provide
alcohol have no general obligation to discourage intoxicated guests from
driving, unless they actively create or increase the risk of drunk
driving.  For instance, the Court stated
that social hosts might be held liable for continuing “to serve alcohol to a
visibly inebriated person knowing that he or she will be driving”.  However, since the Childs case did not specifically deal with provider liability, it
remains to be seen if future courts will adopt such a narrow approach to a
social host’s liability as an alcohol provider.

Occupiers’ Liability

Even if you
do not provide alcohol, you may face potential liability as an occupier for
alcohol-related injuries that occur on your property.  An “occupier” is defined as anyone who has
control over property with the power to admit or exclude others.  Thus, you would be considered an occupier when hosting
a party at your house or renting a hall for your child’s wedding.  

Occupiers
are not liable for every injury that occurs on their property.  Rather, they are only liable for negligently
failing to safeguard entrants.  The case
law establishes that occupiers must ensure that their property is reasonably
safe in terms of the physical conditions, the people they allow to enter and
remain, and the activities they permit to occur.

Limiting Potential Liability

An effective
risk minimization plan involves a broad approach that addresses the full range
of a social host’s potential liability. 
The following strategies can reduce a social host’s risk of being sued.

                Planning

  • Depending on the size of the event, consider hiring trained servers.
  • Do not combine alcohol with potentially dangerous activities.
  • Check the premises for potential hazards.

Serving

  • Do not make drinking the focus of your event.
  • Make food available, as guests who have eaten absorb alcohol slower than
    those who have not.
  • Serve drinks to your guests rather than offering a self-serve bar.  This allows you to monitor your guests’
    alcohol consumption.
  • Stop serving alcohol well before the event ends.

Supervising

  • Be attentive to your guests’ behavior and appearance.
  • Do not serve alcohol to guests that are already intoxicated.
  • Arrange for intoxicated guests to be taken home safely or to stay the
    night.

Summary

Being a good
host involves not only ensuring that your guests have a good time, but also
protecting them from alcohol-related mishaps. 
Remember, exposure to alcohol-related liability is largely within your
control.