December 3, 2019

Murphy Battista

T’is the season of the holiday party. The time of year when there is lots of cheer (and beer). However, as fun as holiday parties can be, they can also lead to a legal nightmare. With the recent legalization of cannabis, hosts won’t only be concerned about the liability risks of those drinking and possibly injuring themselves or someone else, but also the host’s liability responsibilities for their guests using cannabis.

On an episode of The Law Show, Joe Murphy, Q.C., discussed social host liability both for private parties and office parties, and what can be done to mitigate legal issues in case of injury as a result of a social event. As the holiday season begins, we want to offer further insight on how you might be found liable, and how you can avoid liability.


Employers’ Responsibilities

Much like commercial hosts (i.e., pubs and restaurants) employers are held to a high standard of care when hosting events where alcohol will be served. Not only does this duty of care cover the attendees of the event, but also anyone who may encounter these guests (a common example being another driver on the road).

Employers can be found liable if an intoxicated employee leaves a work-event, and then ends up injuring someone. During The Law Show, Joe discussed the case of Jacobsen v. Nike Canada Ltd. where an employee became a quadriplegic from a car accident after leaving a work event where alcohol had been served as a reward for a crew finishing a job. The employer provided the employee with beer that evening, did not restrict his intake, and did not prevent him from driving. After leaving the work event, the employee attended a bar and drank more, and then was injured in an accident. As a result, the employer was found partly responsible for his injuries. While this employee did continue drinking after the event, the court found that as a result of the alcohol consumed at work, his judgment was affected; the court held the employer 75% liable.

Employers are expected to take steps to prevent their employees from becoming intoxicated. Should over-service occur, they must take positive action to ensure there is a limited risk of harm. This can mean providing a means of transportation home. However, it’s important to keep in mind that risk of the employer’s liability doesn’t end once the employee is home. As long as someone is impaired (and that can last for several hours), the employer is potentially liable.

Employers now also have to consider their standard of care (rules and safeguards) with regard to their party guest’s use of cannabis. If a guest is consuming both alcohol and cannabis, the combination may result in impairment. Because of this, hosts must take reasonable steps and positive action to ensure their guests are not impaired to the point they can harm themselves or others. This means employers should be aware of guests taking “smoke breaks” where they might be consuming cannabis.


Private Social Events

In Canada, social host liability for the service of alcohol to adult guests was restricted by the Supreme Court of Canada. This 2005 case decision in Childs v. Desormeaux concluded that “social hosts do not owe a duty of care to third parties injured by intoxicated guests.

However, that decision doesn’t completely protect the social host. If the host’s conduct creates or exacerbates the risk, they may be found liable for the injuries of guests or others. We also suggest the private host ensure they have the appropriate homeowner/renters insurance, with the maximum available third party liability coverage.

We’ve discussed social host liability on the blog before. To read more about how to minimize the risk of liability exposure please read this blog post.


Tips on How to Avoid Liability

By planning ahead, you can minimize the risk of liability at your holiday event, and spend more time celebrating the season with your guests. We recommend taking the following into consideration when planning your party:

  • Ensure that You Hire Professional Serving Staff and that they are Serving It Right CertifiedServing It Right is BC’s mandatory course that licenses, managers, and servers must take to serve alcohol in the province. This course educates stakeholders about their legal responsibilities when serving alcohol, including what to look out for to avoid over-serving patrons. The professional staff will also ensure that guests won’t be pouring their own drinks.
  • Provide Taxi Vouchers or Reimburse Travel Expenses: If your guests know that they will have a safe ride home at the end of the event, they will make plans to leave their vehicles at home. You can also ask your guests to hand over their car keys before being served alcohol, but that is not a realistic way to deal with the problem.
  • Provide Food and Non-Alcoholic Options: Give your guests the option of not participating in the alcoholic festivities.
  • Buy Insurance and Make Sure You’re Licensed: This may seem obvious, but it’s important to make sure that you have liability insurance for your event. Look out for gaps in your coverage, and ensure you have protection against injuries and property damage. You’ll also need to apply for a Special Event Permit if the location calls for it.
  • Have Designated Sober Party-Goers: An easy way to avoid things from getting out-of-hand is to have a team of sober party-goers at the event. They will set a good example for the group, but also will be able to monitor alcohol consumption and take action if they notice someone is impaired.
  • Have a Party Policy: If you’re an employer hosting an event, you can ask your employees to sign a Party Policy where they agree to moderate their intake of alcohol, accept responsibility for their consumption, and help ensure their safety. This will put the party-goers in the frame of mind to consume responsibly.

The holidays are about making memories, so make sure that your holiday party is one to remember for all the right reasons. If someone you know has been injured as a result of a holiday party, please contact us for a free consultation.

This post was originally published in December 2019, and has since been updated with relevant information. 

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