Social Hosts Not Liable for Drunk Drivers Leaving Parties

In Childs v Desmoreux, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that party hosts are generally not liable if their guests drive drunk and injure third parties. The case has major implications for Canadian social hosts, homeowners, insurers and, of course, victims of drunk driving, as well as society at large. My case comment, “Social Host Liability in Canada,” explores some of these implications by looking at the underlying reasoning of the Court and the legal and practical significance of the case in Canada and abroad. I worry that the Court’s ruling may discourage social hosts from acting responsibly.

The case is about whether or not the hosts of a BYOB party must take reasonable steps to prevent their guests from driving drunk and injuring someone as a result. It is tremendously significant for every Canadian who hosts a party, insurance companies and homeowners, and perhaps most of all, victims of drunk driving.

Drunk driving
Don’t drink and drive, by TraumTeufel666, on flikr.

The trial judge and Court of Appeal both found that no legal duty of reasonable care exists. The Supreme Court has affirmed those decisions and held that social hosts cannot be liable for the harms inflicted on victims of drunk driving by the hosts’ intoxicated guests. Party hosts can apparently ignore the fact that their guests may leave the party driving drunk, without doing anything about it. The Court justified this decision on the grounds of individual autonomy and responsibility, saying that when an adult makes the choice to consume alcohol and drive drunk, “there is no reason why others should be made to bear its costs.” Of course, without sufficient insurance to cover all losses, the practical result of this ruling is that Zoe Childs and other innocent victims of drunk driving will bear these costs.

Importantly, the Court did note that this case concerned a BYOB party. The result might be different in a case where hosts serve alcohol to a guest, are relied upon to monitor consumption and/or know or ought to know that a guest is about to drive drunk. The fact that hosts know about a guest’s history of alcohol abuse and drunk driving is immaterial, according to the Court. The Court was also careful to distinguish social hosts from commercial hosts. Commercial hosts serve alcohol for profit, are able to control patrons’ consumption and are required by regulations to do so.

In the social context, however, the ruling leaves drunk drivers as the only ones legally responsible for the injuries of their victims. It means governments may now have to consider alternative schemes, for example compensation funds for victims of drunk driving supported by levies on alcohol retailers or consumers.