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Legalese - December 20, 2007

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Legalese - December 20, 2007 A Caution to Social Hosts over the Holidays Legalese is a column of general information and opinion on legal topics by the lawyers of Rural Legal Services, Box 359, Sharbot Lake, ON, K0H2P0, 613-279-3252, or 1-888-777-8916. This column is not intended to provide legal advice. You should contact a lawyer to determine your legal rights and obligations.

The Holiday Season is once again upon us. A time when many invite friends over for a party. After all, good food and drinks are a natural part of the festivities. ‘Tis also a time to consider the responsibilities of social hosts and the potential damages caused by their guests who leave the party after consuming too much alcohol.


Over the past few years we have covered, in this column, a case in which a young man was killed and his girlfriend left a paraplegic following a collision with a car driven by a drunken guest of the defendant hosts. When we last reported, in 2004, the Ontario Court of Appeal had confirmed that the hosts of the party from which the drunken driver had just left were not responsible for the damages suffered by the people in the car accident. The case has now been reviewed by the Supreme Court of Canada which held that a social host at a party where alcohol is served in not under a duty of care to members of the public who may be injured by a guest’s actions, unless the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk (emphasis added).

However, it is a sobering thought that a number of social hosts have been sued. Even more chilling is the thought of the horrific damages that can be suffered by partygoers on their way home. The fact that a social host has not yet been found liable for damages suffered by the actions of drunken guests does not mean that no liability exits. As noted by the Supreme Court of Canada, social host liability may exist in circumstances in which the host’s conduct implicates him or her in creating the risk or making it worse.

To avoid potential liability and make the holiday season safer, organizations, such as the Canada Safety Council have suggested a number of risk management measures for social hosts.

These measures include:

Either don't drink or limit your own consumption of alcohol in order to track that of your guests.

Know your guests - it is much easier to track the changes in behaviour of those you know.

Try to serve all drinks yourself and avoid self-serve bars to track and monitor your guests' consumption. Consider hiring a bartender trained in alcohol service.

Have plenty of non-alcoholic choices.

Serve lots of food that has protein and fat - salt encourages more drinking and sugar does not mix well with alcohol.

Meet, Greet and Repeat - meet and greet all your guests as they arrive in order to determine if they have had anything alcoholic to drink before arriving. If the party is an open house or cocktail format, repeat the process as guests leave.

If a guest is intoxicated, encourage him or her to give you their car keys if relevant. Buddy up with a friend to assist in persuading the intoxicated person to take a cab.

Keep the phone numbers of cab companies handy and tell the guest that a cab has been ordered - don't give them the option to refuse.

If the guest is quite intoxicated, keep that person with you until they have sobered or can be left with a sober responsible person.

Only time will sober the person, not additional fluids or food. Offering a spare bed is a good recourse.

If the person refuses to give the car keys or spend the night at your house, call the police. It may seem drastic, but it could be a choice between that of an upset friend or far more tragic consequences.

Here is a final word of caution for the guests who think that they don’t really drink if they limit themselves to wine. The Association of Canadian Distillers advises that a “standard drink” is a 12 oz. bottle of regular strength (5% alc. /vol.) beer, or a 5 oz. glass of (12% alc. /vol) table wine, or a 1.5 oz. measure of (40% alc./vol) spirits. Each of these contains 0.6 oz. of pure alcohol. THEY ARE DIFFERENT BUT EQUAL.


Peter Graham, Lawyer

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