We’ve all seen this situation. That wacky uncle has a little too much spiced rum and egg nog and is wobbling like a poorly balanced Christmas tree. Luckily all our uncles are smart enough not to get behind the wheel if the party was a little too good…but what if they weren’t? This sort of issue is generally referred to as “social host liability”. It boils down to what responsibility you have as the host of a party to monitor your guest’s alcohol consumption, and to prevent them from driving if intoxicated.
As you may know, in a commercial context, sellers of alcohol are expected to avoid over-serving patrons and can be held liable if an intoxicated patron injures someone or causes damage while driving. The Supreme Court of Canada has considered that responsibility in the context of
social gatherings and found there to be a distinction for three reasons. First, commercial servers are in a much better position to monitor
consumption. Second, legislation governs the operation of such commercial hosts, and third, there is a profit motive in a commercial context.
Having distinguished a social gathering from a bar or restaurant, for example, the only basis for liability would be common law negligence. For such negligence to be found, the risk of a party guest causing damage or injury would have to have been reasonably foreseeable to the
host. This can be a fact specific question, but generally speaking, unless the host took an active role in increasing the risk, liability should
not be found. The Court gave the example of continuing to serve an obviously intoxicated guest, all while knowing that he or she will be driving home, but also noted that to broadly place such responsibility on social hosts would essentially ignore personal responsibility for one’s own conduct.
The lesson in all this is that the host of a private party will likely not be held responsible for the conduct of an intoxicated guest, provided he or she has not knowingly contributed to the risks. Having said that, we all have a part to play in keeping the roads safe this holiday season. If you think one of your guests has had too much to drink, offer to call a cab. What may seem to be an awkward conversation may save a life.