B.C. Tavern Liability Case Notable for Facts, Not Law

By now, you have probably heard of last week’s decision of the B.C. Supreme Court in Laface v. McWilliams et al. This was a case in which a drunk driver drove into a group of pedestrians, causing some serious injuries. The driver had been drinking at the Steveston Hotel. The case has attracted a lot of media attention because the trial judge, Madam Justice P.A. Kirkpatrick, imposed 50% liability on the hotel. No Canadian court has ever found such a high degree of liability on a commercial host.But when the actual reasons for judgment of Justice Kirkpatrick are studied, it is clear that the case breaks no new legal ground. Rather, the judge’s findings stem from the application of well-established legal principles to a set of facts so extreme that we are unlikely to see anything like them again.The decision also suggests that the trial strategy of the hotel failed spectacularly. In her reasons, Justice Kirkpatrick spoke of the “despicable” nature of one submission made on behalf of the Steveston Hotel. Other arguments advanced by Steveston were described as “startling”, “astonishing” and “outrageous”. Speaking of the hotel’s witnesses, the judge said she had “no confidence” in their credibility. She went further and said that she “cannot rule out the possibility that they simply have chosen to lie and conceal their actual observations”.The driver, McWilliams, had a blood alcohol reading of more than twice the legal limit. When he emerged from the hotel after drinking there that night, he was staggering. What sealed the fate of the Steveston Hotel is what happened when one witness observed McWilliams lurching about in the hotel’s parking lot. A 17 year old girl named Robyn Strang encountered McWilliams, whom she knew. She said that McWilliams “kept stumbling over to me until he actually had to put his hands on my shoulder and be that far away to know who I was”. By “that far away”, she said, she meant “face to face. Like, right in front of me.”Asked what she had noticed about McWilliams, she said: “that he was really, really, really drunk”.This is where it got really, really, really bad for the Steveston Hotel.Williamson was trying to get into his car to drive away. Ms.Strang tried to prevent him from doing so. She attempted to take his keys away from him, but was unsuccessful. She then took the initiative of steering him back into the hotel. Initially, the doorman refused to let the two of them back in, because the establishment was closing, but when she said that McWilliams was drunk and that she was looking for someone to drive him, the doorman relented.Once inside the bar, Ms. Strang first tried to get one of Williamson’s friends to drive him. Again, she was unsuccessful. What followed was undoubtedly the key piece of evidence against the hotel:She said she yelled “at the top of her lungs”: “Is anyone going to help me find someone to drive his car for him?” She said that people looked at her and then looked away. No one offered to help her. She walked out of the pub.McWilliams got into his car and drove off. The accident happened within a few blocks.In finding liability against the hotel, the trial judge relied heavily on Ms. Strang’s evidence:However, the most compelling piece of evidence is the hotel’s actual, specific notice that there was an impaired patron on the premises who intended to drive. Ms. Strang was only 17 years old at the time, but she did everything that could reasonably be expected of her in notifying the pub of Mr. McWilliams’ state of inebriation. She specifically told the doorman that Mr. McWilliams was drunk and needed to find someone to drive his car for him. She shouted “at the top of her lungs” asking for assistance with the person who she knew was incapable of driving.There was other evidence that indicated that the hotel was “a good place to go if you wanted to get drunk”. As well, the credibility of the hotel’s witnesses was impeached over and over again, in ways that we won’t go into here. But it was the evidence of Robyn Strang that was key to finding the hotel 50% at fault.If a licensed establishment should ever again be unlucky enough to be faced with such extreme facts against it, a similar finding of liability should be expected.

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