With the holidays upon us, get-togethers with alcohol can occur more frequently. Although the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in Childs v. Desormeaux lays out the responsibility of social hosts, if a host knows that the guest may decide to drive when they are intoxicated, is there a duty of care owed by the host?
The Ontario Court of Appeal, in Williams v. Richard focused on the issues of social host liability, foreseeability of harm and proximity.
In this case, Williams and Richard would drink together after work at each other’s houses. On this night, they drank at Richard’s mom’s house, where he resided, and while there, Williams consumed 15 beers in 3 hours. Richard became aware of Williams’ intention to drive the babysitter home in his personal vehicle and was aware that Williams would have his kids in the car to do so. Richard threatened to call the police, as per a pact the friends had. In response, Williams stated that he would not drive the babysitter home. However, Richard took no other action to ensure that Williams would not drive the babysitter home. Williams drove the babysitter home and got involved in a motor vehicle accident, resulting in his death and injuries to his kids.
Summary Judgment Decision
The judge ruled that the appellants had failed to establish the existence of any duty of care owed by Mr. Richard or his mom. In the alternative, she concluded, relying on John v. Flynn, that if a duty did exist, it was spent when Mr. Williams arrived safely home before departing again to drive the babysitter.
Court of Appeal overturns the summary judgment decision
In deciding to overturn the summary judgment decision, the Court of Appeal focused on 3 issues:
The Supreme Court in Childs v. Desormeaux articulated three situations that establish such a “special link” and that require legal strangers to take action. The court explicitly stated that these are not “strict legal categories,” but recognized, features of a relationship that bring legal strangers into proximity:
(i) Where a defendant intentionally attracts and invites third parties into an inherent and obvious risk that he or she has created or controls;
(ii) Paternalistic relationships of supervision and control; and
(iii) Where a defendant exercises a public function or engages in a commercial enterprise that includes implied responsibilities to the public at large.
It was found that there was an issue for trial about whether there was a special link between Williams and Richard.
In terms of Ms. Richard (the mom and owner of the house):
With respect to the issue of proximity and Ms. Richard, the unique circumstances of this case, including her awareness of the general pact between Mr. Richard and Mr. Williams, Mr. Williams’ habitual heavy drinking on her property, and her knowledge of his alcohol consumption and intention to drive on that evening, could potentially implicate Ms. Richard in the creation or control of an obvious and inherent risk. There was conflicting evidence on these issues and I find that there is a genuine issue requiring a trial to determine the question of proximity as it relates to Ms. Richard.
The Court of Appeal also discussed foreseeability. The foreseeability case law has focused heavily on a social host’s knowledge as to the relevant guest’s level of intoxication, whether there were signs that the guest was intoxicated, and thus whether it was reasonably foreseeable that the guest would engage in certain acts and behaviours that subsequently led to an accident. Again, this was found to be a triable issue and should not have been dismissed at the summary judgment motion.
- Duty of Care
The Court of Appeal concluded:
The facts of the case at bar raise a genuine issue requiring a trial regarding whether Mr. Richard, as a social host, may have invited Mr. Williams into an inherently risky environment that he controlled and created, thereby creating a positive duty of care.
Lastly, in terms of the trial judge’s decision that duty of care ended when the deceased arrived to his home, the Court of Appeal found that there had been an error in law:
In a social host liability case, there is no automatic rule that the duty of care expires once the intoxicated driver arrives home safely. The limits of the duty are determined by the facts of the case.
It was concluded that there were genuine issues for trial on all of these issues, as the analysis was not carried out at the trial level.
As a general rule, a social host does not owe a duty of care to a person injured by a guest who has consumed alcohol. However, this case questions whether there would be a duty, if the host knew that the guest was going to drive while intoxicated in the reasonable future. It will be interesting to determine if there is a new outcome on the duties when this matter is taken to trial.