Just in time for the festive season, a recent Court of Appeal decision reminds us that not being a responsible host can have legal consequences
Just in time for the festive season, a recent Court of Appeal decision reminds us that not being a responsible host can have legal consequences. In Williams v Richards the court identified the kinds of situations that may end up in a social host being sued.
The Risky Business of Being a Social Host in Ontario:
Just in time for the festive season, a recent Court of Appeal [COA] decision reminds us that not being a responsible host can have legal consequences. In Williams v Richard the court identified the kinds of situations that may end up in a social host being sued.
The case comes down to answering this question: when, in law, does a “legal stranger” have a positive duty to intervene to protect another person from harming him or herself, or someone else?
It comes down to creating or controlling a risky situation that others are invited to.
There are three types of case that can attract liability. One of those is described as the situation where a host intentionally attracts and invites others into an inherent and obvious risk that the host has created or controls. That is the party that crosses the line. The problem is the line is not bright and clear.
The OCA offered that the situations where a social host will be found liable are best viewed as being on a continuum, and that there is no formula to be followed. On one end of the spectrum is a “bring your own” party where the hosts serve minimal alcohol; reasonably sized private parties; drinks and dinner after work. At the other end is a young adult throwing a wild party for 40 and providing alcohol; or the teenager’s party for over 100 while mom and dad are out of town.
The case that brought this about came in the context of a summary judgement motion, where a judge can dismiss a case before trial because there is no case in law. The motion judge dismissed the case, the COA disagreed and sent it to trial.
Two friends regularly got together to drink beer after work in Richard’s garage. Williams’ family lived a short drive away. Williams and Richards had a deal that if either of them had too much to drink and might drive children, the other would call the police.
On this occasion, the evidence was that Williams drank 15 beers in short order. It was in Richard’s beer fridge in the garage. Williams then left to pick up the babysitter, and drive her home, with his children in the car. Despite Richard’s protestations and potentially Richard’s mother’s knowledge, he left, picked up the babysitter and the kids, crashed and died. The children were injured.
Richard knew Williams was too drunk to drive. He threatened Williams that he would call the police but did not do so. He did not do anything else, like alerting the babysitter or Williams’ wife that he ought not to drive.
The motion judge relied on Childs v Desormeaux to find no duty was owed by Richard to Williams’ family. The court disagreed that it was dispositive, noting that certain key circumstances made it distinguishable. In Childs, a duty did not arise from merely holding a house party, something that was not inherently dangerous.
Richard could not rely on the fact that Williams got home safely. He knew that Williams’ plan was to put the kids in the car and drive the sitter home.
The moral of this case for party throwers is clear: have a plan, and keep the party under control. Be prepared to send your guests home in a cab or take even tougher action if you know they may not stay there.
¹ 2006 SCC 18 (CanLII),  1 S.C.R. 643