What are the Liability Risks of Hosting a Holiday Party This Year?

If there’s one thing Ontarians have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that change can come quickly. The province went from life-as-usual at the beginning of March 2020 to fully shuttered by the end of the month. Cases dipped below 100 per day that summer only to explode in the run-up to the holiday season. By early 2021, the province was in its longest and harshest lockdown; midway through the year, vaccines were widely available and life had returned to a semblance of normalcy.

Just weeks ago, amid a slow but unworrying increase in cases, Ontarians were considering not whether to gather for the holidays, but how expansive their gatherings should be.

“Companies should not be afraid to have a holiday party this year. They just have to be careful,” wrote Joshua Goldberg in an article, published December 6, for The Lawyer’s Daily. “With the virus largely under control…, in Ontario at least, 2021 will be the first year these events can resume in many workplaces.”

Focusing on gatherings of families and friends, a December 6 CBC News Toronto article said: “Unlike this time last year, when COVID-19 cases were soaring and vaccine coverage was near zero, politicians and public health officials are not discouraging travel and holiday gatherings this time around.”

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and the landscape has once again rapidly changed. On December 16, the province reported 2,421 new COVID-19 cases, up 88 per cent from the previous week. With the highly transmissible Omicron variant quicky becoming the province’s dominant strain, health officials predicted that cases would reach between 6,000 and 10,000 per day by New Year’s Eve without emergency measures. Suddenly, Ontarians were once again asking whether holiday gatherings were sensible.

From a public health and safety perspective, the answer to that question is unclear: large gatherings with multiple social circles are not advisable, but smaller gatherings between close friends and family may be relatively safe. Ontarians are now well aware of ways to mitigate risk: gather outside, wear masks indoors, use a rapid test before seeing vulnerable family members, get vaccinated and get a booster shot, etc.

In a perfect world, Ontarians would avoid large gatherings and limit travel this holiday season. But it’s a big ask for families and friends to remain apart for a second consecutive year – many will decide that the risks posed by the variant are worth baring for a long-awaited holiday meal. With that in mind, we decided to consider the potential liability risks associated with hosting family and friends during this Omicron-afflicted late December.

One of the key differences between this holiday season and last is the fact that there are far fewer official public health restrictions. In December 2020, there were strict limits on the number of people that could gather in a private residence; individuals who flouted those rules were subject to fines. Today, Ontario’s social gathering limit is 25 people, indoors, so it’s possible to host a large family gathering without breaking any rules.

Hosts could still be vulnerable to legal action if a guest became sick with COVID at their gathering, however. As one personal injury lawyer told CTV News last December, many home insurance policies include exemptions for diseases, meaning a negligent host could be responsible for paying compensation and legal expenses.

“If you are doing something that is outside the law or outside of the public health regulations or if you have an exclusion for communicable diseases there is a risk that if you are sued, your own insurance policy will not cover you,” the personal injury lawyer said. “What that could result in is not only that the [insurance company] will not cover the damages that may be awarded or payable to a potential plaintiff, but even the legal costs of your representation and that could be quite significant.”

However, the risk of being held responsible for a person contracting COVID under your roof is minimal. The plaintiff would have to prove that you knew a guest was COVID-positive and permitted them to join the gathering regardless. They would also have to prove that they didn’t catch the virus elsewhere, and that they suffered damages because of the illness, something that may be less likely with the highly transmissible but potentially less potent Omicron variant.

In other words, while there are some liability risks associated with hosting holiday gatherings this season, the more serious risk is how your actions will affect public health in your community. There is a very real possibility that Ontario will see more COVID infections than ever before in the coming weeks; it is our collective responsibility to limit the virus’s spread as much as possible.

If you’ve been injured in an accident or been harmed due to the negligence of another party, contact a Will Davidson LLP personal injury lawyer today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.

Image: Shutterstock

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