Most people who host a party or an event at their house do not give a second thought to the possibility of being sued by their guests. As the person who invites guests into your home, you are legally considered a ‘social host’. Commercial businesses, such as bars and restaurants, that serve alcohol for profit, are ‘commercial hosts’. A social host can be defined as follows:
- Someone who is serving alcohol or allowing the consumption of alcohol on a premises over which they have control
- Someone who is not supplying/selling alcohol for profit
- Not an employer or another entity that has a unique relationship with their guests
Although social hosts have been sued in a number of cases, to date, there have not been any successful lawsuits against homeowners or social hosts. However, many consider that it’s just a matter of time before social hosts are held liable for injuries resulting from the over-serving of alcohol. Certainly, awareness of the potential dangers and liability is a great preventive factor in incidents of social host liability. For example, if you serve invited guests alcohol in your home and have reason to believe they consumed enough to be impaired but make no effort to prevent them from driving while intoxicated, you could be sued if someone is involved in an impaired driving incident.
There are a number of circumstances that may lead to a lawsuit against you, due to overconsumption of alcohol (intoxication) by guests if such action results in safety issues to your guests or to other innocent victims. Some examples are:
- Death or serious injuries (such as traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury) or emotional trauma that result from crashes due to drunk-driving. Most impaired driving accidents result in significant injuries to vehicle occupants or pedestrians.
- Other intoxication-related problems that may cause injury are: assaults, falling down, fighting, choking on vomit and several other scenarios.
The factors that can determine your responsibility or liability would be the establishment of:
- The obligation to Supervise and Monitor
- Duty of Care
- A Special Relationship
In 1972, the Supreme Court of Canada provided clarification on how liability can be established between commercial businesses and customers because of the invitation to purchase and consume alcohol. Specifically, the Court asserts that there is a ‘special relationship’ between a drinking establishment and its customers because the drinking establishment invites customers to use its premises and drink alcohol. For this reason, the bar or drinking establishment has a responsibility to ensure that no ‘foreseeable’ harm occurs to its customers, which includes making sure that clearly intoxicated customers do not drink and drive.
Further clarification by the courts has focused on employers and special event organisers who provide alcohol with a permit, particularly where a lack of training or due care results in deaths or injuries. Such entities or organisers may be labeled as "taverns”; although not normally considered a commercial business, they may nevertheless be held responsible for allowing intoxicated guests to cause harm to themselves or others. For example, the person(s) who obtained the liquor license for a special event can expect to be named as a defendant in a liability suit, if someone at the event is involved in an accident or incident resulting from the over-serving of alcohol.
A ‘social host’ can also be held responsible if they tell guests to bring their own alcohol (BYOB) but do not, themselves, provide any alcohol. This relates to our obligations as property owners and tenants under the Occupier's Liability Act of Ontario. The Act puts the onus of responsibility on social hosts, with respect to:
- Inviting guests onto your property
- Being responsible for your property (owners and renters)
- Incidents that occur on your premises
- Removes responsibility for incidents that occur off your premises
As social hosts may be increasingly held responsible for harm resulting from knowingly providing alcohol to guests, home-owners and special event organisers are advised to take pro-active measures to preventive alcohol-related accidents.
- Appoint someone with the primary responsibility of monitoring drinking at the event
- Release keys only to sober guests
- Offer sleepover options
- Circulate and maintain frequent contact with guests to get an idea of intoxication level
- Have taxi numbers ready and/or organize designated driver(s)
- Keep your own level of alcohol consumption down to a minimum
- Call the police if the situation and/or guests are beyond your control
As a social host, we naturally want to organise events and parties that are enjoyable for our guests, but liability is an issue that we must always consider, both as a guest and host. No one wants to be responsible for injury to themselves, family members or guests, particularly when injury is preventable with due care to drinking practices and ensuring safe transportation home after every event.
Unfortunately, mistakes and/or reckless behaviour sometimes happen, with serious consequences for accident victims. If you were injured as a result of an alcohol related event, call the Injury Lawyers of Ontario (ILO) for expert legal advice and representation.