May 5, 2006 by Canadian Underwriter
Social hosts of parties where alcohol is served do not owe a duty of care to public users of highways, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in Childs v. Desormeaux.
Insurers were watching the case with interest because of its implications on how homeowners insurance, which would pay out for social host liability, might be designed.
On Dec. 31, 1998, Julie Zimmerman and Dwight Courrier had a New Year’s Eve party at their home. Desmond Desormeaux, who brought his own liquor, attended the party along with two friends.
Later that night, Desormeaux’s vehicle crashed into another vehicle, killing one passenger and leaving another passenger, Zoe Childs, a paraplegic. Desormeaux’s blood alcohol concentration was more than double the legal limit at the time.
Childs sued Desormeaux and the social hosts, Zimmerman and Courrier. The trial issue was whether the social hosts were responsible along with Desormeaux.
The Supreme Court ruled the social hosts were not responsible for a variety of reasons.
First, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote for a unanimous court: “There was no finding by the trial judge that the hosts knew, or ought to have known, that [Desormeaux], who was leaving the party driving, was impairedAlthough the hosts knew that [Desormeaux] had gotten drunk in the past and driven, a history of alcohol consumption and impaired driving does not make impaired driving, and the consequent risk to other motorists, reasonably foreseeable.”
Second, McLachlin wrote, even if the consequences of Desormeaux’s impaired driving were foreseeable by the social hosts, they did not have a duty to act because “no duty to monitor guests’ drinking or to prevent them from driving can be imposed having regard to the relevant legal principles.”
The Supreme Court went on to say: “A social host at a party where alcohol is served is not under a duty of care to members of the public who may be injured by a guest’s actions, unless the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk. Short of active implication, a host is entitled to respect the autonomy of a guest.
“The consumption of alcohol, and the assumption of the risks of impaired judgment, is in almost all cases a personal choice and an inherently personal activity. Absent the special considerations that may apply in the commercial context, when such a choice is made by an adult, there is no reason why others should be made to bear its costs.”
Finally, the court ruled: “There is no evidence that anyone relied on the hosts in this case to monitor guests’ intake of alcohol or prevent intoxicated guests from driving. While, in the commercial context, it is reasonable to expect that the provider will act to protect the public interest, the same cannot be said of the social host, who neither undertakes nor is expected to monitor the conduct of guests on behalf of the public.”