The Law Doesn't Take a Break for the Holidays

With the holiday season approaching, you should be aware of possible liability as a result of the various festivities you might be hosting. Host liability can be divided into two categories: the “social host” and the “commercial host.” A social host is simply someone that has a party where alcohol is consumed and a commercial host is an establishment that serves alcohol for profit.

In Canada, bars, pubs, restaurants and other commercial alcohol establishments owe a legal duty to take positive steps to protect their patrons and public from their patrons driving drunk. Commercial hosts have a duty of care, not only to their guests, but also to innocent third parties who may be injured by intoxicated guests.

The liability of social hosts to third parties is not as clear as the law regarding commercial host liability, but it certainly is not something to ignore. That’s right, you invite people into your home to celebrate the season and you are possibly exposing yourself to liability if you do not take reasonable care to ensure your guests get home safely. It is true that the Courts have typically been hesitant to impose liability on a social host; however, you should still take every precaution possible to ensure that your guests do not drive impaired.

In social host liability, the ultimate question will be whether the hosts knew or ought to have known that the guest was too drunk to drive. For example, a guest who is slurring her words and spilling her eggnog on the dog should obviously be prevented from driving. Or, a less obvious example, a guest who consumed an entire bottle of rum, but is not showing many signs of impairment should also be prevented from driving. Of course, this will be more difficult to determine the less obvious a person’s signs of impairment are; therefore, it is a good idea to make arrangements for all of your guests to get home before the party gets started.

What about the office Christmas party, where does that fit in? Many employers host an annual holiday party, which is a great way to build camaraderie within the company, but the liability of an employer hosting a holiday party is higher than that of a social host and closer to the responsibility of a commercial host. This higher liability, even though the employer is not trying to make a profit, is because employers have an extra legal duty to ensure that the workplace is safe for their employees and this would include work related parties.

Whether the host knew or ought to have known about the possibility of harm to the employee and others is still part of the liability assessment (i.e. how much an employee drank and what kind of impairment symptoms were shown), but it will be easier for a Court to justify liability.

Regardless of what type of host you might be this holiday season, there are many things you can do to ensure the safety of your guests, employees and third parties out on the streets, including:

- Prior to the party, ensure that guests arrange designated drivers;
- Provide easy access to a telephone and taxi phone numbers;
- If you notice that an intoxicated guest is leaving, make sure they aren’t driving and offer to call them a taxi or otherwise get them home safely;
- Offer that your intoxicated guest can stay overnight or allow guests to become sober before requiring them to leave;
- If a guest is becoming extremely intoxicated, don’t serve them any more alcohol;
- If an intoxicated guest insists on driving home, call the police; or,
- In the case of office parties, hold the party at a restaurant or other licensed commercial establishment.

Regardless of what your legal duty might be, common sense dictates that if you are going to host a party where alcohol is consumed, you should take steps to ensure your guests drink responsibly. In Fernie, since most locations are within walking distance, there is also the option of walking your guests home; you could even spread some cheer along the way.

Happy and safe holidays everyone!