McCormick v. Plambeck, et al: Are adult hosts responsible for the safety of underage party guests who leave their home after consuming either drugs or alcohol?

insurance law blog underage drinking

In McCormick v. Plambeck, 2020 BCSC 881, the BC Supreme Court examined the issue of whether adults who host minors at their home, knowing they will be consuming alcohol and/or drugs, owe a duty of care as a social host to those underage guests.

Mr. McCormick was a seventeen year old guest at a party hosted by the teenage daughter of Stephen and Lidia Pearson at their Salt Spring Island home.  It was a general custom for parents on Salt Spring Island to host teenagers and allow them to drink alcohol and use marijuana, as this reasonably controlled environment was preferable to the teens holding an unsupervised gathering in the woods.

The Pearsons agreed to host the party on certain conditions: there was to be no drinking and driving; car keys would be collected from guests who drove to the party; Mr. and Ms. Pearson would circulate throughout the party; and the party would end at 1:00 a.m.  Guests were expected to walk home, call their parents for rides, or get a ride from either Mr. or Ms. Pearson.

Mr. McCormick had been invited to the party through a Facebook event in which the Pearson’s daughter linked a video produced by an anti-drinking and driving campaign and asked those invited not to drive under the influence. He and a few friends walked to the party at approximately 10 p.m. and drank beer and smoked marijuana on the way. They brought their own alcohol to the house, and Mr. McCormick’s evidence was that he drank fewer than six beers at the party.

Mr. McCormick left the party on foot with his friend Ryan Plambeck. But soon after, he found himself in the back seat of a vehicle Mr. Plambeck had stolen from the Pearsons’ neighbour. Mr. Plambeck, who did not have a driver’s license, caused the car to leave the paved roadway travelling in excess of 70 km/hr.  Mr. McCormick and Mr. Plambeck both sustained serious injuries; Mr. Plambeck’s injuries proved fatal.

Mr. McCormick sued various parties seeking damages for personal injury. In his claim against the Pearsons, he alleged that as adult social hosts, the Pearsons owed him, a minor, a duty of care and that they breached that duty by allowing him to become intoxicated on their property and then failing to stop him from leaving in that state.  The Pearsons denied that they owed Mr. McCormick a duty of care, in the circumstances, and further that the motor vehicle accident, and the Plaintiff’s subsequent injuries, were caused by Mr. Plambeck’s negligent operation of the vehicle and not by anything they did or failed to do.

This case required the Court to revisit tort principles as they pertain to social host liability, including Childs v. Desormeaux, 2006 SCC 18, wherein the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the argument that a social host owes a general duty to users of public highways injured by adult party guests.  In Childs, The Supreme Court determined injury to a plaintiff by a defendant driver who was coming from a party where he had consumed alcohol was not reasonably foreseeable by the hosts of said party.

Foreseeability was also determinative in this case. Mr. McCormick contended that:

the proper question to be asked here is whether the type of harm suffered; personal injury, was reasonably foreseeable to someone in the position of the Pearsons when considering the safety of minors who have consumed alcohol and/or smoked marijuana, leaving their home at approximately 1:00 a.m. into the unlit, rural roads of Salt Spring Island.

However, the Chief Justice determined that the real question was whether a duty extends to foreseeing that one or more party guests would leave the party on foot, steal a car and drive it unsafely.

The Court held that no duty arose on the facts of this case.

The Court was not persuaded that the Plaintiff was intoxicated when he left the party. Nevertheless, the risk of injury to Mr. McCormick was possible, but not foreseeable. The Pearsons reasonably assumed he was walking home from the party, which was a historical custom for many underage guests at these types of parties on Salt Spring Island. The stolen vehicle had been unlocked with the keys inside. The evidence was this was common practice on Salt Sprint Island. This practice, the Court found, indicated that vehicle theft was highly unlikely, and thus the risk of theft too remote to create a duty on the Pearsons to anticipate that a guest would steal a vehicle upon leaving their home.

The Court went on to find the Pearsons took all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of harm to their guests. The evidence was that the Pearsons’ followed through on the rules they had established: car keys were collected; Mr. and Ms. Pearson were present over the course of the night; and at around 1:00 a.m., the music was turned off and the lights were turned on. Some guests were picked up, some left on foot, and Ms. Pearson drove some guests home.   There was no evidence that other guests drove while impaired or rode with a driver who had been drinking.

While hosting a party where alcohol is consumed by minors is a breach of the Liquor Control and Licensing Act, R.S.B.C. 1996 c. 267, that fact alone did not demand a higher standard of care.  The Court took judicial notice of the fact that graduation parties are an established custom in British Columbia, notwithstanding that they constitute, when minors are involved, a breach of the law. The standard remains one of reasonableness; not perfection.

The Court therefore dismissed the Plaintiff’s claim finding that he had failed to establish the existence of a duty of care between the Pearsons and himself and that, even if a duty of care had existed, the Pearsons met the standard of care.

This decision comes during graduation season, as students start their summer break, and as COVID-related restrictions ease; there will inevitably be parties involving teenagers and alcohol and/or marijuana. Parents may take some comfort in knowing that if they take reasonable steps to protect underage guests from harm, they are not automatically exposing themselves to legal liability because the guests have had alcohol or marijuana at the premises. However, as always, this decision turns on its facts.  It remains to be seen how the Court will apply the law to younger teenagers, rather than the 17 year old Mr. McCormick, where a young person consumes drugs or alcohol supplied at the adult host’s premises or where a young guest leaves a party visibly intoxicated or high.

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