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Hosting Christmas parties: Safety and liability tips

‘Tis the season to be jolly! In addition to shopping, family dinners, and seasonal concerts, our calendars are marked with a string of parties to celebrate the most festive time of year. Friends, family members, and colleagues are all eager to share the joy of the season.

Naturally, you may enjoy offering your own holiday hospitality by hosting a party at your own home. In addition to issuing the invitations, preparing the food, stocking the drinks, and decorating the party space, you need to be aware of liability issues that could arise. It’s a serious topic that doesn’t seem to mix well with the festive spirit of the season, but ignoring it could lead to big problems.

Prepare properly by considering liability laws, a host’s responsibilities, and some tips for making a party both safe and successful.

Liability issues around hosting parties

Holiday party host taking a picture of the party guests

There is no Canadian law that details the responsibilities of a party host, although Ontario has a provincial host liability law. The federal Supreme Court did rule in 2006 on a case involving underage drinking at a party, however. The case, Childs v. Desormeaux, revolved around a drunk party guest who tried to drive home after a New Year’s Eve celebration and crashed into another vehicle; one of this car’s passengers died and another was paralyzed.

Because it was a BYOB (bring your own booze) party, the court ruled that the hosts weren’t liable since they didn’t know how much their guest had had to drink and weren’t able to foresee the tragedy. The test for host liability thus became reasonable foreseeability.

However, the court also suggested that if the host had been serving the drinks, there might have been grounds for liability. As a host, you don’t want to take the chance of being sued, let alone contributing to injuries to one of your guests or other parties. It’s worth considering some tips for safe serving and consumption of alcohol at any party you throw.

What is a social host?

Group of friends talking at a holiday party

Looking to Ontario’s host liability law, a social host is someone who holds a party on their property, whether they provide the alcohol or organize a BYOB event. The social host in Ontario falls into three categories:

  • Anyone who is not selling or providing alcohol for profit;
  • Anyone who has a unique, or non-employer relationship with their guests; or,
  • Anyone serving or condoning alcohol on a premises over which they have control.

As a host, you are subject to various types of liability:

  • Server’s liability. Anyone who has served a guest to the point of intoxication should take note here. You are responsible for cutting your guests off as they near this state.

  • Liability for Sponsoring Potentially Dangerous Activities. You are responsible for stopping your guest from participating in any drunken, destructive behavior, whether that means driving or defacing property.

  • Premises liability. If you’re the owner or renter of the premises, you are responsible for whatever happens on the property, whether it’s physical damage or accidents and injuries. It’s up to you to make sure there are no hazards about that could cause injury.

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7 tips for hosting responsibly

Suddenly, the stakes in hosting a holiday party seem larger, but don’t despair. You undoubtedly want your guests to enjoy themselves without unpleasant consequences. As you plan your holiday fête, keep these 7 tips in mind:

  1. Monitor over-consumption

    Monitor your guests to ensure that they aren’t over-consuming the alcohol. If you see someone who is over-indulging, it’s up to you to set limits. You can serve guests yourself to maintain better control, rather than setting out an open bar.

  2. Offer non-alcoholic beverages

    At a certain point in the evening, before anyone is thinking about departure, switch from serving alcohol to serving coffee and tea. It’s a perfect opportunity to bring out more holiday sweets, rather than savouries. Why not show off your holiday baking?

    Group of happy people sitting together and eating snacks
  3. Old sobersides

    Think about staying sober yourself so you can keep a proper eye on guests. You and your partner can take turns as a designated non-drinker if it’s an annual event.

  4. Movies, games and other activities

    Don’t make drinking the focus of the festivities. Gather to watch a favorite holiday movie or introduce some silly party games that give people ways to interact that don’t necessitate too much alcohol.

  5. Take away the keys

    If someone has overindulged, call them a cab or offer them a bed for the night, and consider taking away their car keys. You could also ask them to arrange designated drivers in advance, with a special party favour for all the abstainers.

    Person giving his keys to someone while they drink alcohol
  6. Feed the hungry

    Ensure that there is lots of food on hand to dilute the effects of alcohol. Avoid excessively salty foods, since they make people thirstier.

  7. Start shovelling

    Be sure that your sidewalks and driveway are clear of snow and ice so that guests can travel safely from vehicles to your front door. Remove all potential tripping hazards inside your home. Your hallway should have a safety mat to prevent slipping and sliding on a wet floor. Have a fire extinguisher handy for potential kitchen crises.

    A person shovels snow from the stairs of their doorstep

Remember, prevention is much preferable to recovery. Follow these steps and everyone, including you, will enjoy the party.

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