Social Host Liability

A person hosts a party. Guests drink alcohol. An inebriated guest drives away and causes an accident in which another person is injured. Is the host liable to the person injured? (Childs v Desormeaux)

And so Beverly McLachlin, chief justice of Canada, launches into what is a very contested point of law, but an instantly accessible and recognisable one too. Where does the law draw the line of liability? Or in the great tradition of pithy legal phrases, ‘who is my neighbour?’ This is of general interest, I suspect, so this post, on the above decision (published this week) is a departure from cyberlaw.

The court – the Supreme Court of Canada – found that in general, private hosts didn’t have a duty of care towards those injured by party-goers (this particular driver was an over-goer, having got through 12 beers in 120 minutes leaving him at almost 3 times the legal limit…). Pubs can have a duty (although, of course, this alone doesn’t guarantee a successful claim!).

Applying the two-part Anns test (a-proximity/foreseeability and b-policy reasons not to apply duty, a long-standing English precedent), it failed on the former. It gets blurred, though, when they discuss the factual evidence (the trial court hadn’t agreed that the host, who even walked the driver to his car, was aware that he was impaired). It’s also relevant that holding a house party (as opposed to, say, extreme sports) is considered non-dangerous and some version of ‘normal’. (Obviously McLachlin CJ never attended a demolition party in her student days!) . Another consideration was that it was a bring-yer-own-booze event, not an event where the hosts supplied all the alcohol. In fact, they only supplied a few sips of champagne. Must have been rockin’, then.

So the answer is a qualified no. The door on liability for X towards Z for the consequences for serving alcohol to Y isn’t entirely shut, but it’s definitely closed over.

As for Ireland and the UK – I don’t know of a definitive decision on this point. Certainly, Irish law was (for some time) quite close to Anns, and if anything, the Glencar case from a few years ago makes it even more difficult to establish liability. But if I’m wrong, the comments button will correct me.

Further reading:

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2 thoughts on “Social Host Liability

  1. Very interesting. If I get time later I have a look for more cases on this area. I’m just thinking out loud or on paper here, so please excuse the disjointed nature of the following… Perhaps, if such a case is heard in Ireland or the UK reference will be made to the fact that there is no duty to act to save another. This is in effect a tort of omission. Evidence would be required to demonstrate that the driver was obviously unfit to drive. Irish evidence law does allow a person to express an opinion on intoxication (if I remember correctly) without violating the rule on expert evidence. A neighbour viewing the driver being helped into his car by the host for example. In any case the issue is more likely to arise where the driver either has no insurance or financial resources. MIBI could attempt to recover it’s costs from the host or perhaps an injured party could sue the host directly in circumstances where the driver was a person of insufficient means, a serious life-long injury perhaps requiring a substantial sum. I wonder how this fits in with P.I.A.B.? Given the novel nature of the argument, and the fact that for P.I.A.B. liability has to be uncontested, the case would have to be heard in court. In legal realist terms I’m not sure Ireland is ready for that kind of ruling given our drinking culture. Ad campaigns may have made drink driving abhorrent to most but we may not be ready yet for a duty of care on the part of a host.

  2. I think another issue is the oft-cited ‘culture of litigation’ issue – certainly the people I’ve discussed this with offline during the week generally roll their eyes at the idea of Yet Another American Lawsuit. The idea of there being a limit to liability is certainly between the lines in the Canadian and especially the Australian versions. I can’t imagine any case of this type being uncontested, too. So in a prevailing culture of trying to avoid opportunities for a day in court (if not ‘tort reform’ in the weasel words of the American insurance companies), it strikes me that this might fall between the stools – too complicated for PIAB (etc), too radical for tort law.

    One interesting aside from the SC in Canada – the intervenors were Mothers Against Drink Driving on one side and the association of insurance companies on the other…

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