Our Blog

When are employers responsible for the actions of holiday party-goers?

Office holiday parties, in addition to being the highlight of many employees’ years, occupy a legal grey area in the Canadian civil justice system. When an attendee causes or suffers a serious injury, personal injury lawyers are challenged to discern who precisely is responsible.

If the office party is held at a staff member’s home, rules surrounding social host liability will apply. If the event occurs at a licensed establishment, we may look at commercial host liability. If the injuries relate to an improperly maintained property, the Occupiers’ Liability Act is likely to hold answers. Injuries related to authorized marijuana or alcohol consumption on a business’s premises, however, are not governed by these areas.

As we discussed in our recent blog on social host liability, the decision in the Supreme Court of Canada case Childs v. Desmoreaux states that “a social host at a party where alcohol is served is not under a duty of care to members of the public who may be injured by a guest’s actions, unless the host’s conduct implicates him or her in the creation or exacerbation of the risk.” Commercial hosts, as all Oakville personal injury lawyers know, are bound by a long history of case law to take positive steps to prevent their patrons from drinking and driving.

Because businesses owe their employees a certain duty of care, employer host liability falls somewhere between social host liability and commercial host liability. It is most likely to be applied in situations where an employer provides marijuana or alcohol to staff, is aware of an employee’s intoxication, and fails to take sufficient steps to prevent the employee from driving.

The 2002 case Hunt v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. dealt with approximately this scenario. Hunt attended and consumed alcohol at an office holiday party at her employer’s premises. Her drinking was unrestricted and unmonitored. Following the party, she drove to a pub where she continued to consume alcohol. On her drive home from the pub, Hunt crossed into oncoming traffic and was seriously injured in an accident. It was determined at trial that Hunt’s employer breached its duty of care to maintain a safe workplace.

“…the defendant Sutton, as the plaintiff’s employer, did therefore owe a duty to the plaintiff, as its employee to safeguard her from harm,” the trial judge wrote. “This duty to safeguard her from harm extended beyond the simple duty while she was on his premises. It extended to a duty to make sure that she would not enter into such a state of intoxication while on his premises and on duty so as to interfere with her ability to safely drive home afterwards.”

Hunt’s employer and the pub where she continued drinking were determined to be jointly 25 per cent responsible for Hunt’s injuries.

Another case that personal injury lawyers may know, Jacobsen v. Nike Canada Ltd., returned a similar verdict. Jacobsen was severely injured in a single-car accident after drinking beer provided by the employer. In this case, too, the plaintiff visited a bar en route home; Nike Canada was still found 75 per cent liable for the injuries.

Avoid liability, reduce injury risk

 For businesses, the most effective means of avoiding employer host liability are also common-sense measures to reduce the likelihood of drunk driving injuries. For example: cap intake at two or three drinks; hire professional bartenders to serve alcoholic beverages; provide non-alcoholic options and plenty of food; offer taxi vouchers or Uber rides; and stridently promote responsible drinking at your staff parties.

With marijuana now legal in Canada, it is likely that employer host liability cases relating to marijuana intoxication will materialize in coming years. The courts will likely refer to Childs, Hunt, and Jacobsen to determine liability and compensation in these cases, meaning employer host liability will continue to lie between social host and commercial host liability for injuries relating to marijuana intoxication.

If you or someone you love has been injured as a result of impaired driving, contact Will Davidson LLP’s team of experienced personal injury lawyers today to learn how we can help.


Image credit: Jeremy Keith/Flickr

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin