Paternalistic Social Host Liability, Reasonableness Not Perfection

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The existence of a general duty of care between a social host and users of a public highway injured by an adult party guest was rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 2006 case Childs v. Desomoreaux.

More recently in McCormick v. Plambeck, the Chief Justice of the BC Supreme Court held that two parents (the “Defendants”) who hosted a party at their home on Salt Spring Island where minors were drinking, were not liable for a subsequent car crash involving one of the minors who attended the party (the “Plaintiff”).  Chief Justice Hinkson held that, as hosts, the Defendants had to take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of harm to their guests, but the standard was not perfection.

The Defendants permitted minors to use marijuana and consume alcohol at the party. The Defendants asserted some supervisory control and made some attempts to control the activities of the attendees of the party. The Plaintiff was drinking alcohol at the Defendants’ house and left the party on foot. He then got into a stolen car with another minor who was driving. They were involved in an accident which killed the driver and severely injured the Plaintiff. It was determined by the Court that the deceased driver was not intoxicated at the time of the accident.

The Plaintiff argued that the duty of care owed by the Defendants had an additional element contemplated but not seen in Childs – the fact that the Plaintiff was a minor. As a result, the Plaintiff says the relationship between the Plaintiff and the Defendants was more proximate than in Childs and harm was more foreseeable. The Plaintiff proposed that the Defendants should have anticipated all possibilities and avoided any risks.

The Court explained that it is never possible to eliminate all risks and the Defendants were not required to do so. The Court emphasized that just because something is possible does not mean it is reasonably foreseeable. The duty is to act reasonably, not perfectly.

In this case, the Defendants had arranged for the collection of car keys, one of the Defendants drove five attendees home, they periodically supervised the party and there was no evidence that any attendees drove away from the party while impaired. The Court explained that post-Childs jurisprudence has focused heavily on the social host’s knowledge as to the relevant guest’s level of intoxication. Here, the Court rejected the submission that the Plaintiff was intoxicated when he left the party and found there were no obvious signs that the Plaintiff would suffer injury by walking home from the party.

Ultimately it was found that although the Defendants were in a paternalistic relationship with the guests of the party, no duty of care was established because the Plaintiff’s injuries were not reasonably foreseeable as a result of the Defendants’ conduct.

Although Childs left the door open for creating a positive duty of care in situations of paternalistic relationships, the BC Supreme Court has confirmed that the standard in these cases is still one of reasonableness, not perfection. While the scope of social host liability continues to take shape in Canada, social hosts ought to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of their guests who consume alcohol.