CA Winery Settles Host Liability Case for $3 Million

I spoke about the issues surrounding "host liability" for wineries at the recent wine law conference that was held in November here in Vancouver. Those of you that were there will have heard my warnings regarding a winery's potential legal liability if an individual who has been served alcohol at the winery is in an accident later that injures either himself or another person.

While I am unaware of any B.C. wineries being in this situation recently, a news story from California illustrates the expensive consequences of a failure to live up to the applicable legal standards. In this case, the Sonoma County winery had hosted a wedding event and served numerous beers to a guest who was, in fact, under age. That guest ended up in a car accident later in the night in which his passenger was seriously injured. The passenger sued the winery, 7-Eleven (who later had sold some additional alcohol to the pair), and the driver. The eventual settlement ended up with the winery shouldering the bulk of the costs.

Host Liability Issues for the Wine Industry

The holiday season is upon us. While most of the season generally revolves around a spirited (pardon the pun) and responsible celebration involving wine and other liquor, the issue of legal liability for alcohol service always crops up at this time of year as businesses of all kinds become aware that good times can turn into a problem if someone ends up injuring themselves or others following a seasonal party at which they have consumed alcohol.

I have received a number of inquiries about this issue in the past few weeks so here is a quick (non-comprehensive) summary of the applicable law as well as a few ideas for limiting your liability.

There is one set of rules that I will call "commercial host liability" for restaurants, bars etc... most situations where a business is making money serving drinks. This would definitely include wineries or agencies in situations where they are either charging for wine, running a tasting room/event, or selling or promoting wine as an adjunct to an event. On the commercial host side, the rules are pretty strict in that the business has a fairly high duty of care toward a patron who has had too much to drink and they can be found liable if they don't do enough to prevent that person from injuring either themselves or someone else. All wineries and agencies should have staff trained to recognize liability and alcohol service issues for these types of events. You can read more on commercial host liability in the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Stewart v. Pettie (2005) which is the leading decision in this area.

On the other side, there are a set of rules for "social host liability" which basically apply to private parties. A more recent (2006) Supreme Court of Canada decision, Childs v. Desmoreaux, has found that, for the most part, social hosts do not have a duty of care to their guests and those guests are responsible for their own behaviour. If you are interested, you can read about this decision in this article or here.


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