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Understanding your liability as the host of a holiday party

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As the end of the year approaches, parties are in full swing, merriment is high, and police are reminding everyone to be extra prudent when getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, especially if you’ve been drinking.

In 2015 Statistics Canada reported 72,039 impaired driving incidents across the country—a rate that represents 201 incidents per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, one in 20 Ontario drivers admitted to driving after consuming two or more drinks in the hour before driving.

“We see impaired drivers every single night,” said OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt. “People are drinking constantly. We do have a far bigger awareness program over the festive season, so hopefully, people are thinking a lot more about that this time of year.”

Part of that awareness stems from a party’s host. Whether it’s an intimate party for close friends, giant holiday bash or an office shindig, the host is partially responsible for ensuring that guests remain safe.

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“Social host liability applies generally when you’re hosting a party where you’ll be serving alcohol or other intoxicants like cannabis,” said Adam Little, a partner at Oatley Vigmond Personal Injury Lawyers.

“It’s an evolving legal debate, but where a social host provides alcohol or cannabis and permits an intoxicated guest to drive away from the party, there is certainly an element of increased risk of liability.”

In conjunction with Oatley Vigmond, we take a look at what a person can do to limit their own liability before, during, and after hosting a party this holiday season.

Consider the ride strategy 

Discourage impaired driving right from the beginning by including public transit, ride sharing or taxi alternatives on the invitation. Doing so allows guests to begin planning their own safe route to and from the party rather than having to think about it after having already ingested alcohol or cannabis.

It’s also a good strategy to offer guests a ride to the party in the first place.

“Many people will give guests a way home, but guests won’t want to get a taxi ride home when their car is sitting in the driveway,” said Schmidt. “Maybe a better method would be to pick guests up and bring them to the party. That way they don’t have a vehicle waiting for them and they’re far more likely to avoid impaired driving.”

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Serve smart

For larger gatherings, hiring somebody with a Smart Serve certificate helps decrease host liability and ensure guests’ safety, said Little. When it comes to a work function, holding the party completely off-site is another great method to build in extra protection.

“One of the best things an employer can do to shield themselves from any concern of liability is to host the event at a restaurant or another facility where they serve alcohol so that you don’t have to,” he said. “Restaurants have staff trained in Smart Serve and they can monitor consumption. You can essentially download any liability concerns that way.”

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“We always look to see where the serving was coming from and whether it was coming from a licensed establishment or if they were drinking at home or with friends,” Schmidt said. “The impaired driver will be charged, but then it could come back to a host as a potential civil suit if someone gets killed.” 

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Plan a proper menu 

When hosting at home, offer plenty of alcohol-free alternatives and food to ensure guests’ safety. If making a punch, add alcohol only to individual servings, and as a general rule of thumb be responsible for making all guests’ drinks.

“Make sure food is available,” added Little.

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“If you’re having a big gathering where you’re expecting people will be drinking a lot of alcohol, then a bowl of chips is probably not going to cut it.” 

Stay alert and responsible

The holiday spirit can be contagious, but it’s important to stay sober as a host, said Little. That way it’s easier to keep an eye on what guests have consumed and to make informed decisions.

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“Avoid serving shooters or hosting drinking games or contests,” he said. “That advice can be hard to follow because a good party will often have this sort of thing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have fun, but if a guest becomes intoxicated and they shouldn’t be driving, then encourage them to give you their car keys. And if they won’t, offer to let them spend the night or offer a taxi cab.”

Alert authorities if necessary

Little admitted it’s a “free society” and people may make their own decision, even if it’s sometimes unsafe. He and Schmidt both said to call 9-1-1 if any guests get behind the wheel intoxicated, whether from alcohol or cannabis.

“People don’t think cannabis affects their ability to drive because they’re calm and relaxed, but it also means their reaction times are delayed. That’s a huge concern for us,” said Schmidt. Cannabis sits in your system for a long time. It’s legal. You’re allowed to smoke cannabis and we’re not going to criticize that. But if you are impaired and you’re in a vehicle, that’s where the issue is.”

“Ultimately if the person refuses and drives away, you have to make one of the most difficult decisions of your life,” Little said. “But it’s an important one—call the police. It may seem drastic, but it could be the choice between having an upset friend, or death or a serious injury to your friend and/or an innocent person.”

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For more information, visit Oatley Vigmond.