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Personal responsibility and personal choice

Supreme Court of Canada upholds personal choice and responsibility

By Arthur Weinreb, Associate Editor,
Saturday, May 6, 2006
Yesterday the Supreme Court of Canada released its ruling on whether or not the hosts of a private party are responsible to innocent third parties for injuries that are suffered as a result of the over consumption of alcohol by an invited guest. In a unanimous 7-0 decision, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from the Ontario Court of Appeal and found that, generally speaking, there is no duty of care owed by party hosts to third parties.

Julie Zimmerman and Dwight Courrier hosted a New Year's Eve party at their home in 1998. It was a BYBO party and one of their guests, Dwight Desormeaux was known to them to have been twice convicted of impaired driving. Desormeaux consumed about 12 beers before driving home in the early hours of January 1, 1999. He crashed his car head on into another vehicle, causing the death of one person and injuries to others, including himself. One of the injured persons, Zoe Childs, who was 18 years old at the time, had her spine severed which left her paralyzed from the waist down. As Desormeaux had neither money nor insurance, her only hope of recovering damages was if the hosts of the party were found to be liable for her injuries.

The Supreme Court of Canada found that the actions of Desormeaux were not foreseeable. Upon the facts that were determined by the trial judge, the hosts did not know, nor ought they have known, that their guest was impaired and should not be driving. The court also found that even if injuries to third parties were foreseeable, there was no special relationship between the hosts and the guest (such as parent/child) that would require them to act to ensure that Desormeaux did not drink to excess. The ruling indicated the result would be different had Zimmerman and Courrier actively encouraged their party guests to drink too much or created some other situation that would impose a risk to the public. The court found that merely holding a private party where alcohol can be consumed did not constitute such a risk.

The Supreme Court distinguished private parties from commercial drinking establishments that have been held to be liable for the results of excessive alcohol consumption since 1995. The court found that unlike private persons, restaurants and bars are strictly regulated and licensed. They are required to train their employees to recognize impairment and to "cut off" those who have consumed too much. Ahey have the ability to monitor the number of drinks that patrons consume if only to keep track of the money that is owed or paid. Unlike Zimmerman and Courrier, commercial establishments have a financial incentive to serve as much alcohol as possible and therefore owe a duty to the public to control alcohol consumption on their premises.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice McLachlin stated, "A person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party does not park his autonomy at the door. The guest remains responsible for his or her conduct. Short of active implication in the creation or enhancement of the risk, a host is entitled to respect the autonomy of the guest. The consumption of alcohol, and the assumption of the risks of impaired judgment, is in almost all cases a personal choice and an inherently personal activity".

If is often said that judges are too out of touch with what is going on in the real world and this case is illustrative of that point. We live in a society that where personal responsibility and personal choice are in rapid decline. People like Dwight Desmoreaux are more and more considered to be victims in much the same way as Zoe Childs became a victim in the early hours of that New Year's Day. He's not responsible for his choices and actions; everybody else is. We live in an ever enveloping nanny state where even cold blooded gang killers are often regarded as victims of an uncaring and for the most part, racist society.

It was refreshing to see our top court emphasize such seemingly outdated concepts as personal responsibility and personal choice.