Over the coming weeks, Albertans will be looking to make the most of the last days of summer by getting together for barbecues, bonfires, cottage get-togethers, and other social gatherings. With the likelihood of alcohol and cannabis consumption at many of these events, party hosts may wonder what liability they could have for an injury caused by a guest’s intoxication.

What is a social host?

Under Canadian case law, social hosts are occupiers (i.e. the homeowner or tenant) who are non-commercial hosts (for example, a bar) or their guests’ employer. If you are hosting a non-work-related event and aren’t serving alcohol for profit, you are probably a social host.

What liability do social hosts have for injuries caused by intoxicated guests?

Unlike commercial hosts (i.e. places where alcohol is sold for a profit, such as bars or restaurants), social hosts do not necessarily have a legal obligation to stop or prevent their guests from drinking and driving physically. They also will not always have a duty to monitor their guests’ alcohol or drug consumption. However, Canadian courts have found that the liability faced by a social host for injuries caused by their intoxicated guest(s) is highly fact-specific and depends on each case’s circumstances. 

In what circumstances could social host liability apply?

The leading Canadian case on social host liability is Childs v. Desormeaux, a 2006 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. The Court in Childs held that generally speaking, social hosts of parties do not owe a duty of care to protect the public by monitoring their guests’ conduct.

The Childs decision was largely based on a legal test referred to as the Anns-Cooper test. The test was derived from the 1972 decision of England’s House of Lords in Anns v. Merton London Borough Council and refined by the Supreme Court of Canada in its 2001 decision in Cooper v. Hobart. The Anns-Cooper test considers the following:

  1. Was the injury reasonably foreseeable, and is there a close or “proximate” enough relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant to give rise to a duty of care? And, if so:
  1. Are there policy considerations which ought to negate or limit the scope of the duty, the class of people to whom the duty is owed, or the damages that may arise from the breach of that duty?

The Childs decision spoke about the general lack of duty on the part of social hosts to monitor their guests. However, the Supreme Court’s adoption of the Anns test kept the door open for social host liability in the right circumstances: namely, situations where the host created or exacerbated the risk. The Court stated in Childs:

“… A person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party does not park his autonomy at the door. The guest remains responsible for his or her conduct. Short of active implication in the creation or enhancement of the risk, a host is entitled to respect the autonomy of a guest.” [Emphasis added]

B.C. Court of Appeal clarifies social host liability in underaged party case

Earlier this summer, the British Columbia Court of Appeal clarified the limits upon the principle of social host liability. In McCormick v. Plambeck, 17-year-old Calder McCormick and his friend, Ryan Plambeck, attended a party at the home of Stephen and Lidia Pearson. The Pearsons had agreed to let their daughters host a party at their house.  After leaving the party, McCormick and Plambeck stole a neighbour’s car (which was unlocked with the keys inside). They lost control of the car after driving too fast around a bend in the road and crashed into the woods. Plambeck, who was found to have been driving the car at the time of the accident and was not intoxicated, was killed in the crash. McCormick suffered a traumatic brain injury that permanently altered his memory, social cognition and executive functioning abilities.

McCormick sued the estate of Ryan Plambeck, the Pearsons, and the owners of the stolen vehicle (the Couplands). The claims against Plambeck and the Couplands were settled before trial. At the trial, McCormick sought a finding that the Pearsons were responsible for the accident on the basis of social host liability.

Trial judge: harm not foreseeable, social hosts met standard of care

At trial, the judge found sufficient proximity between McCormick and the Pearsons (who asserted some supervisory role over the party guests). However, the judge found that it was not foreseeable that McCormick and Plambeck, who left the party on foot, would be injured by stealing a car and driving it recklessly.

The trial judge further found that even if the Pearsons had owed a duty of care to the underaged party attendants, they met the standard of care by taking away the guests’ keys, asking attendees to call their parents, allowing guests to stay the night, and driving some guests home.

McCormick appealed the trial judge’s decision to the B.C. Court of Appeal.

BC Court of Appeal: McCormick’s injuries not sufficiently foreseeable to impose social host liability 

The B.C. Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge’s finding that McCormick’s injuries were not sufficiently foreseeable to give rise to a duty of care owed by the Pearsons. The appellate court found that although McCormick was a minor and did not have the same autonomy as an adult, he was not visibly intoxicated when he left the party. As a result, there were “no obvious signs to suggest that [McCormick] would suffer injury by walking home.”

The Court of Appeal disagreed with McCormick’s argument that the way the injury occurs does not need to be foreseeable for social host liability to apply.  The Court stated that “[a]lthough the precise mechanism of injury need not be foreseeable … the general mechanism must be.” The Court explained further:

“In my view, the foreseeability analysis involves more than merely asking whether personal injury as opposed to damage to property is foreseeable in relation to a particular class of plaintiff. The potential for occurrence of either type of harm cannot be assessed in the abstract, untethered from the circumstances and the way in which harm might occur.”

Cuming & Gillespie LLP Helps Clients Who Have Been Injured Due to Social Host Negligence

As demonstrated above, social host liability is a complex, case-specific, and evolving area of the law. If you have been involved in a drunk driving accident or other incident and believe that a negligent host may be responsible, contact Cuming & Gillespie LLP in Calgary. Our skilled personal injury lawyers have significant experience in social host liability matters and advocate for injured clients across Alberta. Clients can rest assured that we handle all aspects of their claim so they can focus on their own healing and recovery. To schedule a confidential consultation, contact us online or by phone at 403-571-0555 (toll-free at 1-800-682-2480).