The Ontario Court of Appeal has concluded that the hosts of a 1998 Ottawa New Year’s Eve party which resulted in a tragic accident are not liable to the woman who was injured in a car accident caused by an impaired party guest. The decision can be viewed at: http://www.ontariocourts.on.ca/decisions/2004/may/childsC38836.htm
However, the Court of Appeal specifically stated that its decision should not be interpreted as meaning that so-called “social hosts” are immune in all cases from liability to innocent third party users of the road for damages caused by impaired guests who drive cars. The Court said that a decision with respect to the existence of social host liability should not be made in a vacuum but only in a factual context.
In its much-anticipated decision in Childs v. Desormeaux, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial judge’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s action, but for different reasons.
The trial judge had found that the social hosts had an obligation to monitor the drinking of their guest, particularly in light of his history of heavy drinking and impaired driving convictions. However, the trial judge also found that to impose liability on social hosts would involve finding a new duty of care and he declined to do so for policy reasons.
The Court of Appeal, however, held that in the circumstances, the social hosts owed no duty of care to innocent users of the roads. The Court noted that, in this case, the New Year’s Eve party was a “bring your own booze” party and that the hosts were not actually serving alcohol to their guests. The Court also emphasized that there was no evidence that the hosts knew how much the at-fault driver had consumed and also that the trial judge had not found that the hosts knew that the driver was impaired when he left the party.
The Court of Appeal said that in a case in which a social host was aware that a guest was impaired and knew that the guest would be driving away from the party, the conclusion might be different.
In Childs v. Desormeaux, the Court concluded that social host responsibility is not merely an extension of commercial host liability, noting that commercial host liability involves contractual considerations. It agreed with trial judge that imposing liability on social hosts involved would involve recognizing a new duty of care.
The Court also found that the trial judge had erred in concluding that the social hosts in Childs v. Desormeaux had an obligation to monitor their guest’s drinking because of their knowledge of his past drinking habits and criminal convictions. The Court of Appeal held that knowledge of a guest’s propensity to drink is just one factor to consider when determining whether the social hosts knew that the guest was intoxicated when he left the party. It said that a commercial host’s liability does not flow from any knowledge of a patron’s drinking habits and less so should any such knowledge form the basis for social host liability.
We will watch with interest to see whether the plaintiff will try to bring this case back to Ottawa by seeking leave to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.