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Alcohol and liability: know the law

Drinking opens the door to a wide range of legal liability issues. Impaired driving is the leading cause of criminal death in Canada, and many other alcohol-related incidents can lead to a lawsuit.

Whether it’s a case where an impaired person has hurt someone else or maybe just themselves, the parties who provided the booze can be liable. Whether it’s a waiter, bartender, or just a host at a private party, they may have a “duty of care” —  a responsibility to ensure their actions don’t expose others to unreasonable risk of harm.

A social host typically isn’t liable for the actions of a drunken guest, but it can depend on the circumstances. This comes from a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision where a young woman sued the drunk driver who struck her car and rendered her paraplegic, but also sued the hosts of the party where he got drunk.

The court ruled that a host is not under a duty of care to members of the public and is not expected to monitor their guests’ conduct on behalf of the public.

However, a host who “creates or exacerbates” a risk could he held responsible. If your party includes drinking games or some situation where you induce guests to drink, you might be liable for their conduct.

In addition, in Wardak v. Froom, a 2017 Ontario Superior Court of Justice decision, it was held that a social host may be liable if there is a ‘paternalistic relationship between the social host and an injured guest’. In Wardak, the Frooms held a birthday party for their son, Graeme. Wardak, the 18-year-old plaintiff, had been drinking at the party before he drove home and crashed into a tree, rendering him quadriplegic. This is only an interlocutory decision, but it may lead to increased social host liability in the future.

An employer hosting a work party is held to a higher standard. Courts have held employers responsible for parties where they provided alcohol and did not take reasonable steps to prevent impaired employees from driving or taking other steps to ensure they got home safely. A company bears less responsibility if they did not provide alcohol.

Commercial providers like bars and restaurants have a higher standard to monitor the alcohol intake of their guests.

Liquor licences typically prohibit serving alcohol to someone who is clearly intoxicated. However, past court cases have rejected the defence that a patron was not visibly drunk. A server is in a position to monitor a customer’s food and alcohol intake, so they have a duty of care to that customer.

Ontario’s Licence Act, for example, says if a person who is sold liquor dies, commits suicide, or causes harm to another person while drunk, the injured person can claim damages from the establishment that sold the alcohol.

So they have a duty of care, but there are also questions about exactly how far their responsibility goes and how foreseeable an incident is.

In 1995, another Supreme Court decision said “a bar owes a duty of care to the patrons and, as a result, may be required to prevent an intoxicated person from driving where it is apparent he intends to drive.”

But some establishments have avoided liability since it was not clear the intoxicated person planned to drive.

If you’re hosting an event, there are several tactics you can use to reduce your own liability. Don’t make drinking the focus of the event, have food available, make the event BYOB, or have serving staff available, since they can more effectively monitor alcohol intake.

Read more:

Social host liability

Liquor Liability

Wardak v. Froom