Some people have qualms about serving alcohol to people who will be driving later. But is there a legal, as well as moral, component to this? If you let someone drive away from you drunk and that drunk driver causes an accident, can a person injured in that accident sue you? What if you actually got the person drunk?
Two recent Canadian cases have ruled on this subject.
Tavern owner liability
In April 2006, in the case of Laface v. McWilliams, the BC Court of Appeal confirmed that a local pub was 50% liable for injuries sustained by a group of young people who were struck down by a car driven by a Mr. McWilliams, who had been drinking at that pub.
It’s important to understand that how the court divides up the responsibility for an accident affects how much, and from whom, the successful plaintiff collects damages. If two defendants, such as a drunk driver and the pub that got him/her drunk, are both found at fault, they will be liable for the plaintiff’s damages according to what percentage each was found liable.
50% liability for a pub is high for a Canadian drunk driving case, but the specific facts here seem to justify it.
The evidence at trial was that a 17-year-old woman who knew McWilliams saw him trying to get into his car in the parking lot of the pub where he’d been drinking. She realized that he was too drunk to drive and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to let her drive. She then took him back to the pub and tried to get help. When no one responded, she apparently yelled out, “Is anyone going to help me find someone to drive his car for him?” People looked, then turned away. No one offered to help her. McWilliams left, got in his car, and caused a terrible accident.
The trial judge noted that all staff in BC who serve alcohol in a commercial establishment have to take a course called Serving It Right that requires the establishment to:
- serve only patrons legally old enough to drink
- serve no one to the point of intoxication
- refuse entry to intoxicated people
- remove intoxicated people from the premises responsibly
- control the environment of the establishment
- foresee the safety of the patrons on and off the premises
- foresee the safety of the patrons through the actions of the employees and third parties
In this case, there were many breaches. The trial judge concluded: “The hotel, despicably in my view, attempted to shift the blame for failing to find a safe ride home for Mr. McWilliams from the hotel to (the 17 year old) and other patrons of the pub…I conclude that the hotel had actual knowledge of Mr. McWilliams’ drunken state and the probability that, unless the hotel intervened, he would drive his car…In these circumstances, when it knew or ought to have known of Mr. McWilliams’ intoxication and the real risk that he might drive, the hotel was obliged to prevent him from driving. The hotel did nothing.”
The social host
So commercial hosts like pubs, taverns, and bars can be held partially responsible for the actions of drunk drivers. What about “social hosts” – people holding parties in their homes?
On May 5, 2006, newspapers across the country reported a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada – Childs v. Desormeaux – that the two people who held a party at which alcohol was consumed were not liable for devastating injuries sustained by a young woman (Ms. Childs) when a drunk guest (Mr. Desormeaux) drove away from the party and caused a head-on collision.
Why the different result?
Since the 1932 English House of Lords decision in Donoghue v. Stevenson (discussed in the last newsletter), Canadian courts have held that Person A can only be liable for injuries caused to Person B, if 1) A and B’s relationship is close enough that A could reasonably foresee their actions could harm B and 2) there are no public policy concerns that “negative” the duty of care owed.
In Childs, the liability of Desormeaux wasn’t appealed; it was clear. What was questioned was whether the defendants who had hosted the party where Desormeaux got drunk had enough of a “relationship” with the Childs family so as to give rise to a legal duty of care (and hence legal liability for a portion of the damages).
The Supreme Court compared the situation to that of a commercial host and found a number of differences. First, commercial hosts can monitor alcohol consumption because they sell it, and they have people trained to identify levels of inebriation. Second, commercial hosts are strictly regulated by laws, which reflect public interest in the regulation of alcohol sales to the public. Third, commercial hosts profit from the sale of alcohol, so they have what the Court described as a “perverse incentive” to sell more alcohol than may be good for the patron. All this focus on regulating alcohol intake exists because the commercial host’s business could foreseeably lead to, among other things, drunk drivers and accidents.
In contrast, the party in the Childs case was a BYOB event; the hosts only served three-quarters of a bottle of champagne in small glasses at midnight. Mr. Desormeaux apparently brought and drank his own alcohol at the party. The Court reasoned that the host didn’t create a situation of risk (throwing a party alone didn’t qualify), and so had no responsibility to check their guests before they left the party. The Court also noted that capable adults are entitled to make their own decisions about alcohol consumption. (“A person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party does not park his autonomy at the door.”)
A person who sells alcohol to customers is liable if a customer gets drunk, then drives and causes an accident because of that intoxication. But if a person holds a party and neither sells nor provides large amounts of alcohol to their guests, they’re not liable for alcohol-influenced car accidents afterwards. Note, however, that if enough alcohol is served, even at a private function, to create a significant risk of danger, the courts may find the host at least partially liable. The law is still evolving. The safe course for a social host would be to err on the side of caution.
Excerpt from “ACCESS TO JUSTICE: Legal issues for the injured and people with disabilities,” written and produced by Faith Hayman, Barrister and Solicitor.
This is for informational purposes only and its contents are not intended nor should be considered to be legal advice.
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