British Columbia

Parents not liable for teenagers' fatal crash after house party, top B.C. judge rules

Two B.C. parents who hosted a birthday party where minors were drinking alcohol have been found not legally responsible for a deadly crash that happened after two teenagers left the party and stole a car, a ruling that ends another attempt to establish a standard of social host liability in Canada.

Driver died, passenger suffered traumatic brain injury after teens stole, crashed car on Salt Spring Island

Calder McCormick, now 25, was seriously injured in a fatal car crash on Salt Spring Island in 2012. (Calder McCormick/Facebook)

Two B.C. parents who hosted a birthday party where minors were drinking alcohol have been found not legally responsible for a deadly crash that happened after two teenagers left the party and stole a car, a ruling that ends another attempt to establish a new standard of social host liability in Canada.

The chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court found Stephen and Lidia Pearson were not liable for life-altering injuries suffered by the passenger in the crash on Salt Spring Island in 2012.

Calder McCormick, now 25, claimed the adults of the household were negligent in allowing teenagers to drink in their house and letting the minors leave afterward. The Pearsons owed him and other teenagers a better duty of care, he said.

On Friday, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson disagreed.

"As hosts, the Pearsons had to take all reasonable steps to minimize the risks of harm to their guests, including the plaintiff. The standard is one of reasonableness, not perfection," he wrote in his reasons for judgment.

"In my view, the standard proposed by the plaintiff is essentially one of perfection; anticipating all possibilities and avoiding any risks. That is simply not the way the world works ... It is never possible to eliminate all risks, and the Pearsons were not required to do so."

McCormick's lawyer said the ruling was, of course, not what they wanted.

"Obviously very disappointing for my client," Michael Wilhelmson said in an email to CBC News late Monday.

Wilhelmson said he and McCormick have not decided whether they will appeal.

Stolen station wagon

McCormick was 17 when he suffered a traumatic brain injury in the collision on North End Road on Sept. 15, 2012. The driver, 18-year-old Ryan Plambeck, died at the scene.

After leaving the Pearsons' home, the pair, who had walked to the party, stole a station wagon that had been left unlocked with the keys inside on a nearby property. The car was for sale, and the owner was expecting a potential buyer to come take it for a test drive.

Hinkson said the Pearsons did not owe a duty of care to McCormick because the crash was not a foreseeable consequence of letting teenagers drink and smoke pot at their home.

"By all accounts, the plaintiff was not a bad or unreliable young man. In these circumstances, should the defendants have foreseen that someone from the party would leave on foot, and then steal a car?" the justice wrote in his reasons for judgment.

Even if the Pearsons had a duty of care to McCormick, they did enough to try to keep kids safe, Hinkson said. The couple took keys from guests who drove to their house, monitored the party and gave several other teenagers rides home after it ended, the judge said.

"There is no evidence that any of the guests at the party, other than Ryan or the plaintiff, drove whilst impaired or rode with a driver who had been drinking," Hinkson said.

"The Pearsons' plan of taking keys from anyone who might have intended to drive after consuming alcohol at their home and offering rides to those who had no safe way of leaving the party was successful in avoiding reasonably foreseeable harm to their guests."

The Pearsons' lawyer said the justice's ruling was "the right result."

"The tragic consequences of the accident has and will continue to impact Calder McCormick and his family. It has affected the Pearsons and has been a challenge to many in the close-knit community of Salt Spring," Jim Doyle wrote in an email.

Driver was not intoxicated, judge rules

Plambeck did not have a valid driver's licence at the time of the crash. A coroner's report said he was impaired by alcohol and cannabis, but a forensic toxicologist who testified at trial contradicted that finding. 

Hinkson found even though Plambeck had been drinking, the evidence did not support the conclusion that he was intoxicated when he left the party. The justice also found McCormick was sober enough to be "capable of responsible conduct."

Ryan Plambeck, 18, was killed in the crash on Salt Spring Island in 2012. (CHEK News)

Had McCormick won his case, it would have set a new precedent for social host liability in the country.

Commercial establishments in Canada, such as bars and restaurants, owe a clear duty of care to their customers and people those customers encounter on the roads. The potential liability for social hosts, however, is far less established.

The most definitive legal judgment on the issue, which says social host liability does not exist in Canada, left room for legal challenges such as that from McCormick. 

During the trial, McCormick spoke about his life before the crash — how much he loved riding his BMX bike and how he'd planned to graduate high school early and begin pursuing a career in carpentry.

He now lives in an apartment in an assisted living facility in Victoria and has little chance of supporting himself through work for the rest of his life, according to Hinkson's judgment.

Hinkson said he would have awarded McCormick about $5.86 million in damages had the lawsuit succeeded.

McCormick included Plambeck in his original notice of civil claim. A settlement was reached between McCormick and Plambeck's estate earlier this year.

With files from Rhianna Schmunk

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