May 24 2017

Should You Host that Graduation Party? What You Need to Know About Social Host Liability.

By Bill Hendsbee, Senior Partner at CAM LLP

Congratulations! Your son or daughter is about to graduate from high school. To mark this special milestone your child has asked to have a graduation party in your home. While fun is fun, and you want to help your child celebrate, you should be aware of the pitfalls and that you are potentially exposing yourself to liability.

Know what you are getting into and set the ground rules before you agree to host a grad party

The first assumption you should make is that there will be alcohol consumed at the party. Even if you don’t serve alcohol, teenagers being teenagers, it is a safe bet that you can’t guarantee an alcohol-free event. This is where the major problem arises.

Bars and taverns serving alcohol have been found to be liable for damages suffered by an injured person if they have been injured by a patron over-served by the bar or tavern by, for example, driving while drunk and causing an accident. This was established over 20 years ago in a leading Supreme Court of Canada case (Stewart v. Pettie, [1995] 1 SCR 131). A recent BC case underscores the point that this is still the law of the land.

In recent years an effort has been made to extend this liability to situations like graduation parties. There are cases where parents have been sued if the inebriated teen leaves the party and causes injury to others. There are also other alcohol-fueled issues. For example, one teen assaults another at the party, or there is an accident in the swimming pool. The potential liability of the hosting parents is known in the law as “social host liability.”

So far the cases have not been that successful in holding the parents hosting the party accountable, but the law marches on, and it is probably only a matter of time until social host liability becomes a very serious risk. In a February 2017 case in Ontario, the parents decided to throw a birthday party for their 19-year-old son. They did not serve alcohol at the party, but they were aware that there would be drinking at the party and the teenagers attending the party were told to “BYOB.” The parents also knew that several of the teenagers drinking at the party would be underage. The parents supervised the party, and most of the teenagers played pool or listened to music in the basement, with some teenagers playing “Beer Pong,” a popular drinking game. One 18-year-old boy became very drunk at the party, and the father made an effort to keep an eye on him and in fact offered to walk him home. Unbeknownst to the father, however, the boy left the party, without his shoes and jacket, and walked home. He then got into his car and drove off, causing an accident when he drove over a fire hydrant and hit a tree.

He was taken to the hospital and was found to be more than three times over the legal limit. The boy was rendered a quadriplegic, with brain damage. The injured boy’s parents sued the parents who hosted the party for a very significant amount of damages. The lawyers for the hosting parents applied to the court to have the lawsuit thrown out, but the judge refused and set the matter on for trial. The hosting parents argued to the judge that they should not be held liable because they did not serve alcohol at the party, to no avail. As it stands the case is set to go to trial, the law remains unsettled, and the risk of liability persists.

Minimizing the risks

Are you prepared to pay for taxi vouchers to make sure each teenager at your party gets safely home? This may be a minimal bottom line in deciding whether or not to host that party-anything short of this may expose you to real liability as a result of alcohol consumption. Some other ideas include:

  • Inspect your home for safety hazards before the party;
  • Don’t allow uninvited teenagers to crash the party;
  • If a teen has had too much to drink, call his or her parents to pick up them up from the party;
  • Call the police to prevent a drunk teenager from driving;
  • Prevent teenagers from drinking and driving by confiscating car keys (preferably at the door to avoid trying to reason with a drunk teen) and by locking down the house, if necessary;
  • Don’t buy the alcohol served to the teens at the party;
  • Don’t promote excessive drinking or drinking games at the party;
  • Remove any known “bad apples” from the party; and
  • Buy the most liability insurance you can afford, including automobile, homeowner and umbrella coverage.

If your teen has been injured

If, your teen has been injured at a party or social event and you would like to discuss your options, please call us and we can help you assess the situation, and take action to sort it out.