A lawsuit recently launched in Manitoba raises some interesting issues about the liability of people hosting parties where alcohol is served – especially when they’re attended by minors.
The lawsuit stems from the death of 15-year-old Tamara Rubena Aller, who was found frozen in a vacant lot in Dauphin, Manitoba, two years ago after attending a friend’s 18th birthday party.
According to a story in the Winnipeg Free Press, the girl’s mother is suing the friend’s parents, claiming the father knew she was intoxicated when he dropped her off at an intersection near her home following the party.
The suit suggests that the couple should have known that the partygoers were drinking and that they owed a specific duty of care to those they knew to be minors, including Tamara.
The general rule, set out by the Supreme Court of Canada in Childs v. Desormeaux, is that such so-called "social hosts" don’t owe the same duty of care in relation to guests who have consumed alcohol at their home as do commercial establishments such as bars and restaurants.
In that case, a guest leaving a party at a private home was involved in a car accident that injured a passenger in another vehicle. That passenger sued the hosts of the party, but the court ruled the duty of care for social hosts didn’t extend to third parties on the road.
However, the Manitoba lawsuit appears to have some interesting differences from the facts in Childs.
In that case, the hosts were not conclusively shown to have known that their guest was intoxicated. The argument raised was one of non-feasance rather than misfeasance: the social hosts did not actively create the danger but rather didn’t act to stop it from existing.
It’s possible to make an argument that Tamara’s situation is different; that by driving her home, her friend’s father was actively participating in the situation that ultimately resulted in her death. It’s also possible to argue that the very act of providing a safe ride home is an acknowledgement of the guest’s intoxication.
Another important distinction is Tamara’s age. The Supreme Court noted in Childs that an invitee to a private party is responsible for their own conduct and the inherent risks of alcohol consumption, but phrases the risk in terms of "when such a choice is made by an adult".
It will be interesting to see whether the court decides that a 15-year-old, albeit participating in the adult activity of consuming alcohol, is awarded the same level of autonomy and responsibility in her choices.
The newspaper notes that no statement of defence has been filed, and the allegations have not been proven in court.
By Shannon Montgomery, UVic Law Student