In the recent decision of Williams v. Richard, 2018 ONCA 889, the Ontario Court of Appeal reviewed the case law on social host liability in Ontario and concluded that a variety of "factual permutations" could give rise to a positive duty of care of social hosts.

Background

Mr. Williams and Mr. Richard were colleagues and friends and would regularly drink beer together after work at one of their homes. Apparently, the two men had a pact that if either of them were going to drive while intoxicated and children were involved, the other would call the police.

On the evening in issue, Mr. Williams attended Mr. Richard’s home, where he lived with his mother, Mrs. Richard, and the two men drank beer for three hours. Mr. Williams was estimated to have consumed approximately 15 beers. At some point, Mr. Richard became aware that Mr. Williams intended to drive his children’s babysitter home and his children would be in the vehicle when he did so. Mr. Richard apparently threatened to phone police, but did not believe Mr. Williams took the threat seriously. Beyond this threat, there was no evidence that Mr. Richard took any further step to prevent Mr. Williams from driving while intoxicated. The evidence was also unclear as to whether or not Mr. Richard told his mother about Mr. Williams’ intention to drive.

Ultimately, Mr. Williams was involved in a motor vehicle accident, was ejected from the vehicle and died as a result. His children were in the vehicle and were alleged to have sustained injuries.

Lower Court Decision

Mr. Williams’ children and his wife commenced two court actions: first, Mr. Williams’ children and their mother sued for personal injuries allegedly sustained by the children; second, Mr. Williams’ children and their mother claimed damages pursuant to the Family Law Act. Both actions were premised on the fact that Mr. Richard and Mrs. Richard breached their duty of care as social hosts. Mr. Richard and Mrs. Richard brought a motion for summary judgement. The motion judge dismissed both claims, finding that the requisite duty of care had not been established and even if it was established, such a duty of care would have ended once Mr. Williams arrived home to pick up his children and the babysitter. The plaintiffs appealed.

Decision of the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal ordered the actions proceed to trial.

The Court of Appeal reiterated that Childs remains the leading case in Canada regarding social host liability. Here, the Supreme Court boiled down the outcome to two issues: foreseeability and proximity. The Court of Appeal found that post-Childs, there appears to be no clear formula for determining whether a duty of care is owed by social hosts to third parties or guests. Rather, the determination hinges on fact-specific determinations pertaining to two main issues: first, the host’s knowledge of a guest’s intoxication or future plans to engage in a potentially dangerous activity that subsequently causes harm (foreseeability); and second, whether there is "something more" in the present facts of each case to create a positive duty to act (proximity).

With respect to the duty of care owed by Mr. Richard, the Court of Appeal found that there was enough conflicting evidence to suggest that there was a genuine issue requiring a trial regarding whether or not it was reasonably foreseeable that Mr. Williams would drive home and then drive his children and their babysitter home while intoxicated. With respect to proximity, the Court of Appeal distinguished the facts of this case from Childs. Here, there was no large social gathering — rather, it was two men drinking heavily in a garage, as they often did.

The Court of Appeal similarly found that a genuine issue for trial remained with respect to the duty of care of Mrs. Richard. Here, it was unclear whether Mrs. Richard knew that Mr. Williams would be driving intoxicated. It was also unclear whether Mrs. Richards had any awareness of the pact between the two men, any general awareness of Mr. Williams’ habitual drinking on her property, and whether she was aware of Mr. Williams’ alcohol consumption on the evening of the accident or his intention to drive on that evening.

The Court of Appeal also commented on the motion judge’s assertion that even if a duty of care existed, such a duty came to an end once Mr. Williams arrived home to pick up his children and the babysitter. The Court of Appeal confirmed that there is no "automatic rule" that the duty of care expires once the intoxicated driver arrives home safely. Instead, the limits of the duty are determined by the facts of each individual case.

Takeaway

Ultimately, the decision of the Court of Appeal reiterates that the determination of whether social hosts have breached their requisite duty of care will be considered on a case by case basis after a thorough examination of the specific facts of each case, including whether or not the duty ends once an intoxicated driver arrives home. 

Authors

Douglas O. Smith 
DSmith@blg.com
416.367.6015

Samantha Bonanno 
SBonanno@blg.com
416.367.6308 

Expertise

Insurance and Tort Liability