The British Columbia Supreme Court recently clarified the scope of social host liability in McCormick v. Plambeck,  BCSC 881 (McCormick). The Court dismissed the
Plaintiff’s claim of a finding of social host liability on the basis that no duty of care was established on the facts.
In the early morning of September 16, 2012, the 17-year-old Plaintiff, Calder McCormick (McCormick) and the defendant Ryan Plambeck (Plambeck) attended a party at the home of the defendants Stephen Patrick Pearson and Lidia Diana Pearson (the Pearsons), located on Salt Spring Island. Alcohol and marijuana were consumed by minors at the party. They both had arrived to the party on foot.
The Pearsons had in place a rule that drinking and driving would not be permitted and had a number of mechanisms in place to minimize the risk of harm. The hosts had set out a bowl in which to place car keys that were collected. Sporadically, the Pearsons checked in on the party. The party was set to end at 1:00 am. At the end of the party, the Pearsons made efforts to ascertain the attendees who did not have a ride. Once they were identified, they coordinated driving them home or making phone calls for rides. Some of the attendees also stayed the night.
The Plaintiff and Plambeck left the party on foot. The Court determined based on the evidence, Plambeck was not exhibiting any signs of intoxication when he left the party. Also, the Plaintiff had consumed less than six beers. After leaving the Pearsons, Plambeck proceeded to steal a vehicle from one of the Pearsons’ neighbours. The Plaintiff got in the vehicle with him. Plambeck was unlicenced and uninsured. They were subsequently involved in a car accident resulting in Plambeck’s death and the Plaintiff, a passenger in the vehicle, sustained serious injuries.
Ultimately, the Honourable Chief Justice Hinkson found that, although it was common for the Salt Spring Island community to leave their cars unlocked with the keys in, the accident was not a foreseeable event. The Court found there was nothing to indicate the Plaintiff would suffer harm in the circumstances he left the party. It was unforeseeable Plambeck would steal a car and subsequently become involved in a car accident. The Court found that the Pearsons had taken reasonable steps to minimize the risk of drunk driving at the party.
In considering whether the relationship between the Plaintiff and the defendants disclosed reasonable foreseeability and sufficient proximity to establish a prima facie duty of care, the court held that even though something was possible does not mean it would be reasonably foreseeable.
The Court noted that the post-Childs jurisprudence (in reference to the Supreme Court of Canada seminal social host liability case, Childs v Desormeaux,  SCC 18) had focused heavily on a social host’s knowledge as to the relevant guest’s level of intoxication but rejected the submission that the Plaintiff was intoxicated when he left the party and was incapable of responsible conduct. In the result, there were no obvious signs that the Plaintiff would suffer injury by walking home from the party.
The risk of vehicle theft was found to be too remote to create a duty on the Pearsons to anticipate that guests from their party would steal a vehicle to drive after drinking alcohol.
Although the court found that the Pearsons were in a paternalistic relationship with the guests of the party, no duty of care had been established in the case because the injury complained of was not reasonably foreseeable as a result of the defendants’ conduct.
Social hosts need to ensure they have acted reasonably in the circumstances and must take reasonable steps to minimize the risk of harm to their guests under the circumstances to avoid liability. An analysis of whether a duty of care exists for social hosts will be highly fact-dependent.