Fatal Binbrook crash raises legal questions about teen drinking

The possibility that alcohol may have played a role in a fatal crash in Binbrook raises tough questions about who's legally responsible when teen drinking ends in tragedy.

Friday collision kills two drivers, sends three minors to hospital

The possibility that alcohol may have played a role in a fatal crash in Binbrook raises tough questions about who's legally responsible when teen drinking ends in tragedy.

Just after midnight on Friday, the Mazda Protégé Shawn Bell, a 17-year-old from Stoney Creek, was driving collided head-on with GMC Terrain SUV on Highway 56 just south of Golf Club Road. Bell was pronounced dead at the scene, while the other driver — Steve Last, a 42-year-old father other three — died later in hospital. Three girls, including two of Last's daughters, sustained serious injuries in the incident.

According to his friend Connor Lahie, Bell, a recent Saltfleet District High School grad, had just left a party where he had been drinking. Other party guests, Lahie said, urged him not to leave. 

"We were the last people he talked to," Lahie told CBC News. "He gave my friend a hug … and goes 'Nothing's going to happen, I promise'. And then he left."

Host liability

Hamilton police wouldn't say on Saturday whether they suspect alcohol was a factor in the collision. But the case brings up issues about what kinds of legal implications could arise if teen drinking were found to have contributed to the crash. 

David Payne, a partner at the Toronto law firm Thompson Rogers, said it's unlikely, but not impossible, that the hosts or the homeowners would be found liable if it's determined that Bell drove drunk after leaving the party.

"The rule of law in Canada in that social host liability is not there now," said Payne. He cited a Supreme Court ruling from 2006 stating that hosts are not responsible for harm their guests independently inflict on the public. That minors were involved, he said, would not likely affect the case.

The law, he said, is much stricter when it comes to bars and restaurants, establishments that make money from the sale of alcohol, and prescribes stiff consequences for vendors found selling alcohol to underage patrons.

However, Payne said the Supreme Court ruling "didn't shut the door" on the issue, adding "there may a certain set of circumstances so outrageous" that hosts of a private party, or the owners of a house where a party is held, could be found liable in a civil suit.

"Each case is driven by its own unique set of circumstances."

Other risks

There is perhaps more legal grey area when it comes to deaths, injuries or property damage that occur at a party where teen drinking has taken place.

"It's a lot like if you don't clean the ice of your front steps — it's the same concept if you're hosting a party," Pete Karageorgos, a spokesperson with the Insurance Board of Canada told CBC Hamilton earlier in July. "If someone slips on the steps, they can sue. If someone has a few drinks, climbs up the side of the house and jumps into the pool from the roof the owner may be liable for their safety."

Karageorgos warned that serving alcohol to teens could also hurt a homeowner's chances of making a successful insurance claim should something go wrong at the party.

"You cannot insure illegal acts, so doing something like serving alcohol to minors may void the policy, depending on the company and policy wordings."

CBC Hamilton was not able to determine where Thursday night's party was held, or if the homeowners were present while it was going on.

Investigation still ongoing

Friday's crash resulted in the city's eight and ninth traffic fatalities of the year. Hamilton police have not confirmed the names of the victims in the collision, and did not comment Saturday on the circumstances that led up to incident.

"I cannot give you anything in the form of an update," said Det. Const. Wes Wilson, one of the officers working on the case. "It's still early in the investigation."