Social host liability

"I’m planning a big house party for my 40th birthday. A few of my friends are pretty heavy drinkers. I’ve heard that in hosting a party, I can be sued if someone leaves drunk and gets in a car crash on the way home. Is that true?"

– Nadia, Langford, BC

Party at your place! And alcohol’s on tap. Let’s say one of your guests drinks too much and drives home. On the way, they get into an accident and injure someone else. As the party host, could you be held liable for the injured person’s damages? Learn what the law says about social host liability.

What you should know

A social host doesn’t owe a general duty of care to those injured by a drunk guest

“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.” 

Sounds pretty clear, right? This quote is from the main case about social host liability in Canada. It involved a couple who hosted a New Year’s Eve party where they invited guests to BYOB — “bring your own booze.” At the end of the party, a guest drove away drunk and caused a fatal accident. Canada’s highest court decided the hosts weren’t responsible. 

The court found that as a general rule, social hosts of parties where alcohol is served don’t owe a duty of care to users of public highways. The hosts didn’t know their guest was drunk when he left, so couldn’t have foreseen that someone might be injured by his driving. And even if the hosts had known their guest was drunk, more would have been needed to find them responsible. Because the conduct complained of was a failure to act (that is, failing to prevent the guest from drinking and driving), the hosts would need to have created or enhanced the risk in order to be found responsible. 

In Canada, hosting a party at which alcohol is served is a common occurrence, not something that’s dangerous or risky in and of itself. Hosts are entitled to respect the autonomy of their guests. They aren’t required to monitor their guests’ drinking or take steps to prevent them from driving unless they (the hosts) have done something more that creates or increases the risk. In a moment, we look at what “more” might involve.

It’s a different story for commercial hosts

The law and public policy demand more of commercial hosts, such as bars and restaurants, than of social hosts (ordinary people hosting dinners and parties). A commercial host must refrain from over-serving a customer and must take reasonable steps to keep an intoxicated customer from driving. If they don’t and an injury results, the commercial host can be found at least partly liable. (In this case, for example, a commercial host was found 25% responsible for the injured person’s damages.) The law imposes this duty of care on commercial hosts because they are selling alcohol for profit and their staff are expected to be sober, track customer alcohol consumption, and have training and experience in the responsible service of alcohol.

If a social host creates or enhances the risk, they could be liable

That leading case we mentioned didn’t totally exclude the possibility of social host liability — the court offered a qualifier. A social host doesn’t owe a duty of care to a person injured by a guest’s actions, the court said, “unless the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk.” In other words, the result could be different where the host actively does something that creates the risk or makes things more dangerous. 

Where the host serves alcohol to a visibly drunk person

What might that look like? In some provinces in Canada, it can be a host who continues to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest knowing they will be driving home. But that hasn’t been decided either way in BC. This case has come closest. There the court said the argument deserved a full trial to see if (for example) the host knew the guest was too drunk to drive. At the trial, the court found the host did know the guest was too drunk to drive, and should have foreseen they would drive intoxicated. Yet even so, the court didn’t find the host liable. Giving the guest two drinks when they first arrived didn’t go far enough in creating or exacerbating the risk.

Where an underage guest is involved

Another possible scenario is where an adult hosts a gathering where an underage guest drinks to the point of being drunk, drives away and gets into an accident. This BC case says this scenario could amount to creating or enhancing the risk of someone getting injured (but said a full trial was needed to see if, for example, the hosts knew the drunk guest was going to drive home). 

But this BC case found the adult hosts of a house party, attended largely by underage guests, were not responsible for injuries suffered by an underage guest after he left the party. The injured guest left the party on foot, likely intoxicated, and then got into a car that another guest — who was not intoxicated — had stolen. The driver crashed the car, killing himself and seriously injuring the passenger.

In dismissing the passenger’s claim against the adult hosts of the party, the court found it wasn’t foreseeable that a guest who left a party on foot would later become a passenger in a stolen car that was driven in an unsafe manner. In any event, the hosts had taken reasonable steps to minimize the risks of harm in the situation, including driving some guests home who didn’t have a ride. 

The bottom line

As you may be starting to see, it’s not uncommon for a social host to be threatened with responsibility for injuries suffered or caused by a drunk guest. However, the simple act of hosting a party where alcohol is consumed, even if some or all of the guests are underage, is not enough on its own to create host liability — something more is required. It remains an open question what additional factors may create liability for social hosts. Until this area of the law becomes more settled, it’s wise to be a responsible social host.

Reduce your risk as a social host

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk

No one wants to risk being legally on the hook for someone’s injuries. In hosting a social gathering at your home, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of social host liability. 

"Final exams are over and I’m having friends over to celebrate the end of another term. In the invite, I said I’m providing the food but it’s BYOB. A couple of my friends are under 19. I don’t want anyone driving home drunk so I’ve offered to arrange rides home. If anyone needs to, they can crash at my place."

– Darius, Vancouver, BC

Step 1. Host on a BYOB basis

In the leading case we’ve been mentioning, the hosts served a bottle of champagne at midnight, but otherwise the gathering involved guests bringing their own alcohol. Simply serving alcohol isn’t generally enough for you to be found responsible as a social host. But a BYOB gathering would be even less likely to attract a finding that you created or enhanced the risk of someone getting injured. 

Step 2. Have non-alcoholic beverage options

It's always a good idea to have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages on hand for your guests, including lots of water. Also consider having snacks and other food items available.

Step 3. Don’t serve someone who’s intoxicated

As described above, the courts have hinted at a chance of social host liability where a host continues to serve alcohol to a visibly intoxicated guest knowing they will be driving home. So don’t do that.

Step 4. Offer ways to get home

For any guests who are visibly intoxicated, check in with them as to how they can get home safely. This might involve confirming they have a designated driver, offering to call a taxi or ridesharing service, calling a family member to come pick them up, or letting them stay the night. 

Step 5. Be extra cautious with underage guests

If you’re hosting underage guests, take additional steps to ensure no one leaves the party intoxicated and gets behind the wheel. In this case involving a house party attended by underage guests, the court found these steps taken by the adult hosts to be reasonable in the circumstances: 

  • circulating through the party often enough to have a general sense of the atmosphere, 

  • planning to take car keys from anyone who might have intended to drive after consuming alcohol, 

  • driving some guests home who didn’t have rides, and

  • allowing one guest to sleep on their porch.

Though not determinative of social host liability, keep in mind that it is unlawful to give liquor to a minor (unless you’re their parent or guardian), or even allow a minor to consume liquor in a place under your control. 

  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in January 2022
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Time to read: 6 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Jacqueline A. Small, Holness and Small Law Group and Daniel Coles, Owen Bird Law Corporation

Jacqueline A. Small
Daniel Coles

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