Tag: social host liability

Social Host Lawsuit Survives Summary Dismissal Application


As previously discussed, the circumstances of when a social host (ie – the host of a private party at a residence) can be held liable for injuries caused when an intoxicated guest leaves and causes injury to others is an open one.  Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, Victoria Registry, further addressing this area of the law.
In today’s case (Lutter v. Smithson) the plaintiff was injured when a vehicle in which he was a passenger was struck by the defendant Smithson.  Prior to the collision Smithson, who was 18 at the time, attended a “Bring Your Own Booze” party and became “very drunk“.  The party was hosted by the Defendants Mazus to celebrate their daughter’s 19th Birthday   The Mazus brought a summary dismissal application arguing that they cannot be held liable in these circumstances.  Mr. Justice Macaualy dismissed the application finding this “novel question of liability” should be decided via full trial.  In doing so the Court provided the following reasons:
[15]         As a more general proposition, I am satisfied that the novel question of liability arising out of the consumption of alcohol by a minor at a party hosted on a defendant’s property as raised in this case is best addressed after a full trial. That approach ensures the most complete record possible. In reaching that conclusion, I take into account the additional costs to the Mazus associated with the trial process but there is otherwise no prejudice. In Sidhu v. Hiebert, 2011 BCSC 1364, the summary judgment application judge reached a similar conclusion…
[21]         Childs is a very important decision relating to social host liability. In determining the sufficiency of the affidavit material here and whether it is just to decide the issues on summary judgment, a review of the principles that emerge from the case assists.
[22]         In Childs, the defendant homeowners hosted a party, during the course of which they served a small quantity of alcohol to adult guests. For the most part, the event was “BYOB”. The defendants knew that one of the guests, Desormeaux, was known to be a heavy drinker. As Desormeaux walked to his car to leave, one of the hosts inquired if he was okay to drive. Desormeaux responded affirmatively and drove away. The accident ensued.
[23]         Childs was the first time the Supreme Court considered whether social, as opposed to commercial, hosts who invite guests to an event where alcohol is served owe a duty of care to third parties who may be injured by intoxicated guests (para. 8).
[24]         The court did not accept that the existence of a duty on the part of commercial hosts could be extended, by analogy, to the hosts of a private party (para. 23). Accordingly, the court went on to apply the first stage of the Anns test (Anns v. Merton London Borough Council, [1978] A.C. 728), and concluded, for two reasons, that the necessary proximity had not been established (para. 26):
First, the injury to Ms. Childs was not reasonably foreseeable on the facts found by the trial judge. Second, even if foreseeability were established, no duty would arise because the wrong alleged is a failure to act or nonfeasance in circumstances where there was no positive duty to act. [Emphasis added.]
[25]         Of potential significance here, the trial judge in Childs never found that the hosts knew, or ought to have known, that the guest who was about to drive was too drunk to do so. For that reason, foreseeability, and accordingly proximity, were not established. Although there was evidence that Desormeaux had a high blood alcohol rating, evidence that the hosts knew of his intoxication was absent (para. 28).
[26]         At first blush, Mrs. Mazu’s admission that she knew Smithson was drunk before he left the party appears to fill the foreseeability gap that the Supreme Court first identified in Childs. That appears to strengthen the application respondents’ contention that foreseeability may be established here.
[27]         As to the second point made in Childs respecting the lack of a positive duty to act, the hosts and guests were all adults. The court identified the lack of paternal relationship between host and guest, coupled with the autonomy of the guest, as factors that militated against imposing a positive duty to act on the hosts (see paras. 42–45).
[28]         In the present case, the application respondents point out that s. 33(1)(c) of the LCLA forbids a host permitting a minor to consume liquor “in or at a place under his or her control.” At the material time, the uncontradicted evidence is that Smithson was 18 years old and, accordingly, a minor. I agree with the respondents that this may militate in favour of imposing a positive duty. The evidence also reveals that other minors were present at the party, although it may be that most were also close to the age of majority.
[29]         To adopt some of the language in Childs, found at para. 45, these distinctions raise the question whether an adult host is actively implicated in the creation or enhancement of the risk if she permits an underage person on her property to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication, perhaps extreme intoxication. As in Sidhu, that important question is, in my view, better left to be determined upon the fullest record available after a regular trial. Accordingly, it would be unjust to decide the issue on a summary judgment application.
[30]         There is, in my view, a significant risk of injustice in attempting to determine the answers to the essential questions that the Mazus raise in this case on a summary trial. I dismiss the application.

Social Host Lawsuit Involving "Disastrous" Injury Survives Summary Dismissal Application


Important reasons for judgement were released this week by the BC Supreme Court, Vancouver Registry, demonstrating that given the right circumstances a ‘social host’ can be found negligent if one of their guests becomes impaired and subsequently causes a motor vehicle collision.
In this week’s case (Sidhu v. Hiebert) the three infant plaintiffs were injured in a motor vehicle collision.  They were passengers in their parents vehicle which was struck by another motorist.  There was evidence that the driver of the other vehicle was previously at a social party where he consumed alcohol.   There was also evidence that he had blood alcohol content high enough that he “would have had to drink between 20 and 26 ounces of hard liquor to produce such a result“.  The liquor was not necessarily all consumed at the social gathering.
One of the infant plaintiff’s was “disastrously injured”  with his spinal cord severed in the high cervical area.
The lawsuit was launched alleging negligence against not only the motorists but also the social host.  The social host brought an application for summary dismissal arguing that the 2006 Supreme Court of Canada judgement of Childs v. Desormeaux eliminated the possibility of success in social host lawsuits.  Mr. Justice Johnston disagreed and dismissed the Defendant’s motion.
The Court held that given the right circumstances social host lawsuits can succeed but given some conflicts in the evidence presented this specific case was inappropriate for summary disposition.  In dismissing the application Mr. Justice Johnston provided the following reasons:
[32] Whether a duty had been established on the face of it depended on the answer to this question: “What, if anything, links party hosts to third-party users of the highway?” (Childs, para. 24)…

[43] The court says at para. 31:

… However, where the conduct alleged against the defendant is a failure to act, foreseeability alone may not establish a duty of care. In the absence of an overt act on the part of the defendant, the nature of the relationship must be examined to determine whether there is a nexus between the parties. Although there is no doubt that an omission may be negligent, as a general principle, the common law is a jealous guardian of individual autonomy. Duties to take positive action in the face of risk or danger are not free-standing. Generally, the mere fact that a person faces danger, or has become a danger to others, does not itself impose any kind of duty on those in a position to become involved. [Emphasis in original.]

[44] I take from this passage that this aspect is also evidence-driven, in that whether there is a nexus between the parties will depend on the nature of any relationship revealed by the evidence. The passage also suggests that if there is more than a “mere fact that a person faces danger,” again revealed in the evidence, the general statement may not apply.

[45] The court in Childs summarized three situations where courts have in the past imposed positive duties to act: where a defendant has intentionally attracted and invited third parties to inherent and obvious risks created or controlled by the defendant; where there is a paternalistic, supervisory or controlling relationship between defendant and plaintiff; and where the defendant is engaged in a public function or commercial enterprise that implies responsibility to the public.

[46] I agree with counsel for Mr. Rattan that this case does not fit comfortably within any one of these three situations, but I also note that the Court in Childs at para. 34 said these were not strict legal categories, but serve to elucidate factors that can lead to positive duties to act.

[47] After pointing out that the three situations have in common the defendants’ “material implication in the creation of the risk or his or her control of a risk to which others have been invited,” and the reluctance of the law to infringe on the personal autonomy of someone in Mr. Hiebert’s position without good reason, the Court at para. 39 points out that someone in Mr. Rattan’s position might be expected or required by law to impinge on Mr. Hiebert’s autonomy only when he has a special relationship to the person in danger (not apparent here), or “… a material role in the creation or management of the risk.”…

[56] Because I am persuaded that this case should be decided on a full record of evidence at trial, I conclude that I should leave to trial the question of whether motorists can reasonably rely on a social host to not exacerbate an obvious risk by continuing to supply alcohol to an apparently impaired guest who the host knows will drive away from the party. It seems to me that justice requires that I allow the parties to develop the evidence and argument on a full trial.

[57] Mr. Rattan’s application is dismissed with costs in the cause.

This case is also worth reviewing for the Court’s discussion of whether a passenger in the alleged impaired driver’s vehicle could be found liable.  The Social host brought ‘third party’ proceedings against the motorists passenger arguing that if they are liable then the driver’s passenger should be as well.  Mr. Justice Johnston dismissed this allegation finding that even viewing the evidence in the most favourable light this allegation would fail.  The Court provided the following reasons:

[65] If I assume for the purposes of this application that the evidence showed that Mr. Braun and Mr. Hiebert arrived together at the party in an intoxicated condition, both continued to drink Mr. Rattan’s alcohol to excess at the party, and both left together at the end, in a more intoxicated condition than when they arrived – with Mr. Hiebert driving and Mr. Braun as his passenger – is there a possibility that the first branch of the Anns test might be satisfied? My answer is no.

[66] The language in Childs that might allow a court to conclude that a social host owes a duty of care to highway users injured by a driver who becomes impaired as a guest of the host does not go so far as to admit the possibility of a duty on a companion or fellow traveler who does no more than observe the risky behavior of the drinking guest, and perhaps acquiesce to an extent in the risk by drinking with and then accepting a ride home from the party with the drunken guest.

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ERIK
MAGRAKEN

Personal Injury Lawyer

When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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