A ruling that two parents who held a party at which teens were drinking cannot be held liable for injuries one youth suffered subsequently adds a new chapter to the issue of social-host liability, observers say.
Lachlan Caunt, who teaches torts at the Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, said the ruling from Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson of the B.C. Supreme Court will have an “afterlife” in Canadian law.
Prof. Caunt said in an interview on Wednesday the expansive reasoning of the ruling is part of its strength. “At 424 paragraphs long, Chief Justice Hinkson really went into quite some detail to guide any future case to make clear that a lot more is needed to find a social host liable. It can’t just be that they had a party and somebody drove drunk and was injured.
“This case makes clear there needs to be a large amount of reasonable foreseeability that applies to the eventual injury and the expected standard of conduct by the social host.”
Chief Justice Hinkson ruled that Stephen and Lidia Pearson were not liable for the 2012 crash on Salt Spring Island that killed the 18-year-old driver and caused life-altering injuries to the passenger, Calder McCormick, who was 17.
In the lawsuit, Mr. McCormick’s lawyer argued the Pearsons owed Mr. McCormick a duty of care, which they breached by allowing the teen to become intoxicated on their property and by failing to stop him from leaving.
In the ruling, Chief Justice Hinkson wrote on the issue of what is reasonable as relevant to his decision.
“As hosts, the Pearsons had to take all reasonable steps to minimize the risks of harm to their guests, including the plaintiff. The standard is one of reasonableness, not perfection,” Chief Justice Hinkson wrote.
Chief Justice Hinkson found the Pearsons took protective measures that included collecting car keys, and noted that Ms. Pearson drove five guests home.
“In my view, the standard proposed by the plaintiff is essentially one of perfection; anticipating all possibilities and avoiding any risks. That is simply not the way the world works. ... It is never possible to eliminate all risks, and the [defendants] were not required to do so,” he wrote.
“Although I have found that the defendants were in a paternalistic relationship with the guests of the party, I find that no duty of care has been established in this case because the injury complained of was not reasonably foreseeable as a result of the defendants’ conduct. The plaintiff’s case thus fails in the duty-of-care analysis.”
Mr. McCormick suffered a traumatic brain injury and continues to experience cognitive impairment. He has been at an assisted living facility in Victoria since 2018.
Peter Kryworuk, a senior partner at Lerners LLP in London, Ont., said the ruling is not binding outside the province, but added that “the reasons may be considered in other courts and adopted if found to be persuasive.”
Jim Doyle, lawyer for the defendants, said the case breaks new ground because it is a first relating to minors where underage guests consume alcohol and later come to harm or harm others.
Michael Wilhelmson, representing Mr. McCormick, said no decision has been made on an appeal, but he is concerned possible legal errors led to the dismissal of the claim of his client.
“Some argued there was fairly compelling evidence of what went on at the party – but much of this was not accepted by the trial judge, as you can see in the ruling. We are not entirely sure why not,” Mr. Wilhelmson said in a statement.
The Supreme Court of Canada addressed social-host liability in 2006 in a unanimous decision that upheld an Ontario Court of Appeal decision that two hosts of a New Year’s Eve party were not responsible for the pain and suffering of Zoe Childs, who became a paraplegic when her car was rammed by a vehicle driven by party guest Desmond Desormeaux on Jan. 1, 1999, in Ottawa.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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