The Duty to Responsibly Host a Christmas Party

Published on December 12, 2016

It's that time of the year again.  Whether celebrating Christmas, Festivus, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve or the end of December school exams, for many, it's a time for socializing with friends and family, feats of strength and holiday cheer.  Many such celebrations involve gatherings at the homes of friends and family where alcoholic beverages are consumed.  There are times when people over-indulge and drink too much.  We all know that driving while drunk or intoxicated is both dangerous and against the law.  If you are drunk and cause a car accident, you could be sued.  But what about the host of the party that the drunk driver attended?  Is he or she also liable if someone was injured in the accident?

This very issue arose in an Ottawa case that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006.  In Childs v. Desormeaux [2006] 1 SCR 643, Desmond Desormeaux left a party hosted by Dwight Courrier and Julie Zimmerman at 1:30 a.m.  Mr. Desormeaux, while intoxicated, drove into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another vehicle.  One of the passengers in that other vehicle was killed and three others were seriously injured, including Zoe Childs, whose spine was severed.  Ms. Childs became paralyzed from the waist down. 

At trial, it was determined that Mr. Desormeaux had probably consumed 12 beers at the party over two and a half hours.  There was also evidence that Mr. Desormeaux was known to his hosts to have been a heavy drinker.  However, the party was a BYOB (bring your own booze) event and there was no evidence that Mr. Desormeaux was visibility drunk when he left the party.  When he was about to leave, one of the hosts asked if he was okay, to which Mr. Desormeaux replied “No problem”. 

Based on these facts, the Supreme Court concluded that there was no negligence on the part of the social hosts.  The Court concluded that generally, there is no duty on a host to monitor guests’ drinking or to prevent guests from driving. 

However, the Supreme Court left the door open to claims against social hosts in circumstances where the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the risk.  One example would be where a host serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person and knows that the person intends to drive home.  Another example would be where a host is aware that young or underage guests will be attending and might be drinking, yet fails to take appropriate precautions.  In either of these situations if an intoxicated guest drives home after the party and causes an accident, the host could be found negligent and liable for damages.

When hosting a party where alcohol is consumed or served, you should consider the following steps to protect not only your legal rights, but also the safety of your guests and members of the public:

1)  If hosting a party where alcohol will be served or consumed, encourage guests to take public transportation or carpool.

2)  If a guest who has driven appears intoxicated, persuade that guest to call a taxi, be driven home by someone else, or spend the night in a guest bedroom or on the couch.

3)  If you will be serving alcohol, keep track of how much has been served and ensure your driving guests do not leave intoxicated.  Think twice before over-indulging yourself which might influence your ability to ensure your guests are safe.

 4)  If a guest is clearly intoxicated and intends to drive home, stop him or her.

Enjoy your Christmas and holiday parties, but ensure when hosting that you and your guests are safe.  Depending on the circumstances, if your intoxicated guest is involved in a motor vehicle accident after leaving your party, you could be personally liable for the damages.