As a social host, you don’t have the same legal responsibilities as someone who runs a bar or tavern. But that’s not the whole story. If you allow an alcohol-related event to be held on your property, if you host an alcohol-related event on or off your property, or if you provide alcohol to others, you may have more legal responsibilities than you thought.
Most people know that it’s not wise to serve alcohol to someone who is obviously drunk. But many aren’t aware that they may be sued and held liable (legally responsible) when they provide alcohol to guests who are intoxicated and who injure themselves or others— either at the event or on the way home. (Providing alcohol involves serving, giving or making alcohol available.)
Social hosts who continue to provide alcohol to a guest who is obviously intoxicated, and who they know will drive, may be held liable for any injuries resulting from a crash. Even if you don’t provide any alcohol, you may still be liable for alcohol-related injuries that occur on your property or on other property under your control. (Property under your control could, for example, be a party at a hall you have rented out or a party you hosted in your home.)
However, in the 2006 Zoe Childs case, the Supreme Court of Canada found that social hosts who merely provided the venue for an adult byob event (where guests bring their own alcohol and serve themselves) had no legal responsibility when a guest who was intoxicated left and caused a crash.
You are more likely to be held legally responsible when underage youth are involved. As a general rule, you must be at least 19 years old to drink alcohol in Ontario. If you allow an underage byob event to be held on your property, you may be held liable for injuries suffered or caused by a guest who is intoxicated. This is true whether the injuries occurred at the event or after the guest leaves. The courts are likely to be even more critical of your actions if you bought or provided the alcohol for the underage event.
If an alcohol-related injury results from any of the following situations, you could be liable:
You host a party in your home and provide alcohol to a guest who is obviously intoxicated, and who you know is planning to drive.
You organize an alcohol-related function, such as a wedding in a rented hall, and fail to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of your guests while they are on the property.
You organize a company party at which alcohol is provided to employees and guests who are intoxicated.
You sign a Special Occasion Permit for an event (for example, a licensed street party or dance party), and fail to ensure that the alcohol is served responsibly; that the venue meets fire, building and other legal requirements; that the event is properly managed; and that staff and security people are adequately trained.
You knowingly permit your underage child to host a drinking party in your home or elsewhere on your property.
As a host, it’s important to be aware of your guests’ drinking. Guests can be significantly impaired even if they don’t “look drunk.” For example, they may be impaired without slurring their words or being unusually loud.
Since injuries from falls, fights and vehicle crashes increase when someone drinks too much alcohol, planning ahead and serving alcohol responsibly will give you a better chance of keeping your guests and other people in your community safe. It will also reduce your risk of being sued.