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When is a Party Host Liable for Drunk Driving Accidents in Ontario?

As we approach each holiday season in Canada, many of us will either attend or host parties where alcohol is served. Obviously, we all have an obligation not to drive while intoxicated. But when someone leaves a party drunk and causes a serious motor vehicle accident, can the victims pursue damages against the person who hosted the party or furnished the alcohol?

In many cases, the answer is no. In a 2006 decision, Childs v. Desormeaux, the Supreme Court of Canada said that as a general rule, “Social hosts of parties where alcohol is served do not owe a duty of care to public users of highways.” However, a duty of care may be established if “foreseeability of harm” is present and there is some “special link” between the plaintiff and the defendant. Among the scenarios where a special link may exist:

  • The defendant “intentionally attracts and invites third parties to an inherent and obvious risk that he or she has created or controls”
  • There is a “paternalistic” relationship of “supervision and control,” i.e. parent and child or teacher and student
  • The defendant exercises some sort of “public function” or is part of a “commercial enterprise that includes implied responsibilities to the public at-large.”

Basically, the Supreme Court created a spectrum along which different types of social hosting situations could give rise to liability. For instance, if you simply host a holiday party where alcohol is served, you are probably not responsible if one of your guests subsequently drives home drunk and causes an accident. On the other end of the spectrum, if you allow your teenager to host a party where alcohol (and maybe drugs) are served to underage persons, then that would involve both a paternalistic relationship and the creation of an “inherent and obvious risk” to the public.

Williams v. Richard: An Afternoon of Drinking Leads to a Fatal Accident

The Ontario Court of Appeal recently confronted the issue of social host liability in another context. The case, Williams v. Richard, involves a tragic car accident that killed a man and seriously injured his minor children. The children and their mother subsequently sued two other individuals whom they claimed were liable as social hosts for the accident.

Here is what happened. The deceased, whose name was Williams, lived nearby to a longtime friend and coworker, Richard, who lived in his mother’s house. According to Richard, he and Williams regularly drank together after work at each other’s homes. They even had a “pact” that said “if either of them were going to drive while intoxicated and children were involved, the other would call the police.”

On the day of the accident, Williams and Richard had been drinking at Richard’s mother’s home. In fact, Williams drank up to 15 cans of beer from Richard’s refrigerator that afternoon. After drinking for approximately three hours, Williams left to return to his own residence, where he planned to drive his children’s babysitter home. Richard, citing the men’s pact, said he threatened to call the police if Williams drove, but he later testified in court that Williams did not take the threat “seriously.” Richard further admitted he took no additional steps to prevent Williams from driving while intoxicated.

Instead, Richard and his mother left to go to a nearby store. During the drive, Richard said he noticed Williams’ car was not in his driveway. Sometime later after arriving at the store, Richard called the police “to alert them about a drunk driver.” When returning from another store, Richard said he came upon the scene of the accident–Williams had driven his car into the trailer of a stationary tractor. The impact ejected Williams from the vehicle, killing him, and seriously injuring his children, who were in the car at the time.

Court of Appeal: Pact, History of Heavy Drinking Create Triable Issue for Jury

Richard and his mother were both named as defendants in the subsequent personal injury lawsuit filed by the Williams children and their mother. The defence moved for summary judgment, arguing they “owed no duty of care to the appellants” under Ontario law. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the case.

The Court of Appeal, however, allowed the plaintiffs’ appeal. It held that under the unique facts of this case, there was a “genuine issue requiring a trial” as to the liability of both Richard and his mother as social hosts. With respect to Richard, the appeal court noted that this was not a case where Richard hosted a large social gathering, like a holiday party, where multiple guests were drinking. This was simply a case of “two men drinking heavily in a garage,” an activity they regularly engaged in to the point where a drunk-driving pact existed. Richard also “provided” alcohol in the form of a refrigerator with upwards of 40 cans of beer. All of this could lead a judge or jury to conclude that Richard created or controlled an “obvious or inherent risk.”

The Court of Appeal further rejected the trial court’s alternate theory of the case, which was that even if Richard had some duty to the public to stop Williams from driving drunk, it “automatically expired” when Williams returned safely to his own house. The appeal court explained there was no such rule in Ontario law, and the limits of a social host’s duty of care “are determined by the facts of the case.”

As for Richard’s mother, the Court of Appeal noted there was evidence that she knew about the “general pact” between her son and Williams, as well as their practice of regularly drinking to excess on her property. Again, given these unique facts, the appeals court said a jury could find Ms. Richard liable for Williams’ drunk driving.

Preszler Injury Lawyers may be able to Help if You Have Been Injured in a Car Accident

The question of party host liability for a car accident is always a tricky one to answer. As the case above illustrates, it really does depend on the precise facts of a given case. This is why if you, or someone you love, has been seriously hurt in a motor vehicle accident, you need to work with a personal injury lawyer who can assist you in thoroughly investigating the case and pursuing legal action against those who are responsible. If you need help, contact Preszler Injury Lawyers to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation today.



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