Understanding Social Host Liability: When it’s Time to Call it a Night

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Article2023 | 10 | 11

Understanding Social Host Liability: When it's Time to Call it a Night

Co-written by Austin Sutherland during his 2023 summer student position

beer cans with condensation

With the arrival of autumn come the Halloween parties and then Christmas gatherings, and New Year’s Eve parties. Of course, in Manitoba, the “social” is one of Manitoba’s oldest traditions. Whether it’s a wedding, baby shower, or another celebratory event, Manitoba is renowned for its social gatherings. As these events approach, many in Manitoba are preparing to host gatherings. Amidst these fun events, there’s a significant legal concern: “social host liability.”

These events will often include alcohol, which may oblige the hosts to obtain a Social Occasion Liquor Permit. In Manitoba, these permits are “…required if you are planning to sell or serve alcohol at a one-time special occasion such as a social, charity fundraiser or wedding reception.”[1] These licenses create a number of duties for the permit holder, including abiding by certain rules pertaining to the organization of the event. What many people may not realize is that a permit holder’s responsibilities do not end once the event concludes. Rather, a permit holder’s duties are extinguished only once guests arrive home safely. The following article will provide a brief overview of the relatively untouched area of law surrounding social host liability.

The leading case of Childs v Desmoreaux, 2006 SCC 18 distinguishes between two kinds of hosts — commercial hosts and social hosts — and outlines the differences in the duties of care owed by each. First, a commercial host is expected to monitor alcohol consumption.[2] Second, a commercial host is expected to follow specialized training, rules, and regulations.[3] Third, commercial and social hosts differ in their relationship to the guest. In a commercial relationship, the host receives an economic benefit determined by the number of guests and the number of drinks consumed.[4]

In 2016, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had the opportunity to address a situation whereby an individual was injured after leaving an event where liquor was served under a special occasion liquor license permit. In Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, a car carrying Tuffnail and Petrie and driven by Meekes collided with a tree upon leaving a wedding reception.[5] Meekes had consumed alcohol at the event and was intoxicated at the time of the accident. This resulted in injuries to Tuffnail and the death of Petrie.[6] The individuals were leaving the wedding reception of Mr. Bolton at a hall owned by the defendant’s town and used by the defendant’s community club.[7] Bolton held a special occasion liquor license permit for the reception and had hired a bartender to serve alcohol at the wedding.[8] Tuffnail commenced an action against the defendants for injuries sustained in the accident. Bolton cross-claimed against the town, the club, and the manager of the hall for contribution or indemnity on the basis of negligence, the Occupiers’ Liability Act (OLA), and the Liquor License Act.[9] Bolton claimed the defendants allowed the driver and the passengers to be overserved and failed to ensure that there were adequately trained staff on hand.[10] The town, community club, and manager brought a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the actions and cross-claims against them, which was ultimately granted.[11] The court ruled that the moving defendants were not in possession of, nor did they have any physical presence in the hall at the time of the reception, so they could not be occupiers.[12]

Interestingly, the court suggested that the license holder (Mr. Bolton) would technically be the person selling the alcohol, and would thus be liable for an incident. The decision wrote:

34      It is obvious that if liability exists, it rests upon the person selling the alcohol. In this province, the seller must be a liquor licence holder, who in this case was Mr. Bolton. There is no evidence that either the township, the Optimist Club or Mr. Hearn sold alcohol to anyone…

Following a six-week jury trial, liability was apportioned amongst Meekes (the driver), Bolton (the host), the bartender, and the plaintiff.[13] After the court reduced the award to account for contributory negligence, the total amount that Tuffnail received was $3,435,034.71, of which Bolton was 20.03% responsible.[14]

In Salm v Coyle, another Ontario case, the court opined on a situation whereby the defendant (Coyle) was picked up by a sober friend after a night of drinking at the pub.[15] Upon arriving at home, Coyle grabbed her father’s keys and took the car out for a drive before colliding with the plaintiff’s vehicle.[16] Coyle brought a third party claim against the pub, alleging that the pub served alcohol to Coyle when they knew, or ought to have known, that she was underage.[17] In addition, Coyle alleged that the pub failed to implement a procedure to ensure patrons arrived home safe after a night of drinking.[18]

Of principal concern in this decision was whether the pub’s duty of care to Coyle ended once they had ensured Coyle had a safe ride home in her intoxicated state.[19] The court ultimately dismissed the third-party claim and remarked:

23      I am of the opinion that all duties of care to Coyle and to the plaintiff as a result of Coyle’s intoxication, were satisfied when Coyle did not drive away from the pub and when she was delivered home safely by Collin. It does not matter if Millers Pub did not see to these safe arrangements itself but someone else did. The result was that all of its duties were satisfied and any risk of injury from Coyle’s intoxication after she arrived home safely was not caused by any breach of duty on the part of Millers Pub.

Socials in Manitoba are in a unique position since the holder of a permit likely cannot be classified as a social host. Similarly, the permit holder does not have monitoring systems in place, which is one of the main factors that differentiates between a commercial and social host. However, Tuffnail seems to suggest that the relationship will tend to be classified as more commercial in nature.

Regardless, for those who host a social in which a Social Occasion Liquor Permit is required, it is imperative to ensure that all patrons are served in a safe manner and have a safe ride home, lest they be at risk of liability.

[1] https://residents.gov.mb.ca/reference.html?d=details&program_id=389

[2] Childs v Desmoreaux, 2006 SCC 18, para 18

[3] Childs v Desmoreaux, 2006 SCC 18, para 18

[4] Childs v Desmoreaux, 2006 SCC 18, para 22

[5] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 2

[6] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 2, 4

[7] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, paras 6-8

[8] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 9

[9] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 11

[10] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 11

[11] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 1, 41

[12] Tuffnail v Meekes, 2016 ONSC 710, para 25

[13] Tuffnail v. Meekes, 2020 ONCA 340, para 4

[14] Tuffnail v. Meekes, 2020 ONCA 340, para 5

[15] Salm v Coyle, 2004 BCSC 112, para 6

[16] Salm v Coyle, 2004 BCSC 112, para 8

[17] Salm v Coyle, 2004 BCSC 112, para 11

[18] Salm v Coyle, 2004 BCSC 112, para 11

[19] Salm v Coyle, 2004 BCSC 112, para 13

DISCLAIMER: This article is presented for informational purposes only. The views expressed are solely the author(s)’ and should not be attributed to any other party, including Taylor McCaffrey LLP. While care is taken to ensure accuracy, before relying upon the information in this article you should seek and be guided by legal advice based on your specific circumstances. The information in this article does not constitute legal advice or solicitation and does not create a solicitor-client relationship. Any unsolicited information sent to the author(s) cannot be considered to be solicitor-client privileged.

If you would like legal advice, kindly contact the author(s) directly or the firm's Chief Operating Officer at pknapp@tmlawyers.com, or 204.988.0356.

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Simon Garfinkel
Simon Q.K. Garfinkel