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Childs v. Desormeaux

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Name of the Case: Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006]1 S.C. R. 643, 2006 SCC 18, 2006 SCC 18 (2006)

Citation: Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18

Court: Supreme Court of Canada

“Appeal by Ms. Childs to the Supreme Court of Canada to reverse the courts below and conclude that Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman, as social hosts of the party were Mr. Desormeaux was drinking, were liable for the injuries she suffered” (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18).

Facts

In the early hours of January 1, 1999, Desmond Desormeaux left Dwight Courrier and Julie Zimmerman’s house, after a ‘BYOB’ (Bring Your Own Booze) party. As Mr. Desormeaux drove towards the oncoming traffic, he collided with one of the vehicles, which was being driven by Patricia Hadden. The vehicle had four occupants. One of them died, while the other three were seriously injured. Zoe Childs, who was a teenage by then, suffered severe spine injury, and has since been paralyzed on the lower part of her body. During the time of the accident, Mr. Desormeaux was in a messed up condition. The trial judge determined that Mr. Desormeaux was probably drunk with 12 beers, which he had drunk during the party within two and a half hours. Blood test for the concentration of alcohol in his blood indicated a concentration of approximately 235 mg/100 ml by the time he left the party and 225 mg/100 ml by the time he caused the accident. This was above the legal limit for driving, which is 80 mg/100 ml. Mr. Desormeaux pleaded guilty to a series of crimes, which arose from the events of January 1, 1999, and was sentence to jail for 10 years (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18).  

Issue

The central issue in Childs v. Desormeaux case was whether social hosts who invite guests to an event where alcohol is served owe a legal duty of care to third parties who may be injured by intoxicated guests (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18).

Judgment

The deciding judge in this case was McLachlin C. J., while the concurring judges were Abella JJ., Fish, Bastarache, LeBel, Binnie, and Deschamps.

After the trial, the Supreme Court of Canada reached a judgment whereby, Ms. Childs’ appeal was dismissed. The actual judgment was based on policy considerations involving the social and legal consequences of imposing a duty of care on social hosts to third parties injured by their guests, and government regulations concerning sale of alcohol, the prima facie duty of care related to this case was negative. The court did not find any circumstances of the events of January 1, 1999, which linked Mr. Courrier and MS. Zimmerma with prima facie duty of care. The deciding judge stated that, unless social hosts are actively involved in creating the risk that gives rise to an accident, they cannot be held liable for accidents caused by their social guests. In the Ms. Childs v. Mr. Desormeaux case, the hosts involved did not take part in supplying alcohol to Mr. Desormeaux, nor did they serve him alcohol in his impaired condition (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18). 

The trial judge applied stage one of Anns test to evaluate prima facie duty in the case. This was necessary to provide evidence if the relationship between the hosts and the third parties met the requirement of sufficient proximity. After testing the relationship between the parties in the case, the judge concluded that there was no sufficient proximity between Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman, and Ms. Child. Accordingly, the Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman did not owe a legal duty of care to public users of highways. Based on the facts surrounding the case, the trial judge stated that the injury to Ms. Childs was not reasonably foreseeable. Moreover, the judge stated that even if foreseeability were to be established, no duty of care would have risen on the hosts because the wrong committed by Mr. Desormeaux was nonfeasance in circumstances since there was no positive duty to act (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18).

It was also argued that unlike commercial hosts, social hosts, in this case Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman, were under no legal obligation to monitor the consumption of alcohol on their guests, neither were they under any obligation to control the premises where the alcohol was being served. Moreover, none of Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman’s guests relied on their assistance in monitoring alcohol consumption or controlling the premises where alcohol was being served. Based on this evidence, the trial judge concluded,

“… I cannot accept the proposition that by merely supplying the venue of a BYOB party, a host assumes legal responsibility to third party users of the road for monitoring the alcohol consumed by guests… It would not be just and fair in the circumstances to impose a duty of care.”

Referring to the appellant’s argument that the hosts committed positive acts that contributed to the accident, the judge stated that this was not sustainable. The judge argued that, by providing the venue where alcohol was consumed, the hosts did not in any way create a risk to highway users (p.308). To support his argument, the judge pointed that a positive duty of care exists if foreseeability of harm is present, and if, the other aspects of the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant indicate close proximity. The court had previously established non-proximity between the hosts and the third parties.

The judge identtified three situations where the court would have imposed a positive duty of care. These include a situation were the hosts attract or invite third parties to a risky event, have a paternalistic relationship of supervision and control with the guests, and exercise public functions or engage in commercial enterprise, which include implied responsibilities to the public at large (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18). The judge stated that the situation of hosting a social event where alcohol is served does not fall under any of the three situations mentioned above. Therefore, Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman did not owe Ms. Childs a positive duty of care.

Additionally, the judge stated that holding a private party at which alcohol was served, was insufficient to implicate the hosts in the creation of a risk sufficient to give rise to a duty of care to third parties. Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman only provided a meeting place where alcohol was served. This fell within the accepted parameters of non-dangerous conduct. The judge pointed that apparently, a person who accepts an invitation to attend a private party remains responsible for his/her conduct. On the other hand, the host is entitled to respect the autonomy of a private guest. Consumption of alcohol and assumption of the risks of impaired judgment is in almost all cases, a personal choice, and an inherently personal activity (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18). Moreover, during the private event at Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman’s house, there is no evidence that anyone relied on them to monitor the guests’ intake of alcohol or prevent intoxicated guests from driving (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18). This provided evidence that the hosts were private hosts and not public hosts. The judge concluded that by hosting a private party, the hosts did not establish the degree of proximity required to give rise to a duty of care to third parties highway users.    

On the other hand, the dissenting judges stated that the hosts ought to have known that Mr. Desormeaux was too drunk to drive. Mr. Courrier and Ms. Zimmerman ought to have reasonably been aware that if Mr. Desormeaux drove in his drunken condition, he would cause injury to other motorists on the highway. They argued that since the hosts had noted that Mr. Desormeaux had gotten too drunk, they would not have allowed his to drive. Moreover, the dissenting judge argued that the fact that Mr. Courrier asked Mr. Desormeaux if he was all right when he accompanied him to his car, indicated that the host was aware that Mr. Desormeaux was impaired, hence, he could not drive. Therefore, Mr. Courrier ought to have prevented him from driving while in that condition. However, there was no evidence to show that Mr. Desormeaux displayed any sign of intoxication during his brief encounter with Mr. Courrier (Childs v. Desormeaux, [2006] 1 S.C.R. 643, 2006 SCC 18). 

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