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If your guests drive home drunk, are you legally liable?

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You’re hosting a party. There’s food, music, cheering – and alcohol. Then a guest gets into their car and drives home while under the influence. Can you be held legally responsible if they or others are hurt in an accident?

Naturally, if you’re having a blowout with booze, you should ensure that everyone who tips the bottle has a designated driver, cab or pull-out couch to fall back onto once the festivities are over. Letting someone who’s unfit to drive get behind the wheel shouldn’t be even a worst-case scenario.

READ MORE: Driving hungover can be as dangerous as driving drunk: police

Bartenders and other licensed establishments have a clear legal duty to cut out the alcohol if patrons seem intoxicated and to ensure they get home safely. For individuals who throw private parties, the law isn’t so clear. However, the risk of legal liability does exist, and the scope of hosts’ legal responsibilities may be broadening.

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Canada’s best-known case on this issue is Childs v. Desormeaux, where a woman sued the hosts of a New Year’s party attended by a drunk driver who struck her vehicle in 1999, leaving her paralyzed and killing her boyfriend. The driver had brought his own alcohol to the host’s home. After the criminal case against the driver was concluded, the woman sued both the driver and his hosts for material damages.

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Goodale: Legal liability of letting guests drink and drive will be ‘tested in court’

In a 2006 decision on the case, “the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that social hosts do not owe a duty of care to third parties injured by intoxicated guests,” personal injury lawyer Jeremy Diamond told Global News via email.

However, he added, “the case did not determine whether there was a duty of care in other circumstances, such as if foreseeability of harm is present for the guests themselves.”

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And recently, a case that’s working its way through the Ontario court system may change “the law of social host liability,” writes Daniel Coles, an associate at Vancouver-based law firm Owen Bird.

The case, Wardak v. Froom, was brought by a plaintiff who became quadriplegic after driving drunk following a party hosted by his friends’ parents. Earlier this year, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice denied a motion by the defendants to have the case summarily dismissed. According to Coles, the trial is now set to be heard before a jury.

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“In Wardak, the hosts did not serve alcohol, but they were aware that alcohol would be brought by their guests,” Diamond said via email.

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“In hosting a party, you have created the forum for others to drink. You must be as vigilant as if you were serving the alcohol yourself,” he added.

Also, simply relying on your guests’ own assessment of whether they can drive safely may not be good enough.

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According to the co-author of  a recent study by the U.S.’ Traffic Injury Research Foundation, “when asking U.S. drivers why they drove when they thought they were over the legal alcohol limit, our data consistently reveal the number one answer is that they thought they were ‘OK to drive’.”

Still, there are several things hosts can do to reduce the risk of liability, besides providing accommodation and transportation for guests who indulge, said Diamond.

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Here are some tips:

    • Whenever serving alcohol, consider providing appetizers or a meal as well.
    • Do not make drinking the focus of the party.
    • Cut out the alcohol well before it’s time for everyone to drive home.
    • If necessary, take guests’ car keys away from them.
    • If possible, avoid having guests serve themselves.

“It would be advisable to hire one or more bartenders to serve alcohol. This will create additional oversight when serving guests. Bartenders should be certified and instructed by the host to monitor for signs of intoxication,” said Diamond.

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