Food service stresses virtues such as speed,
courtesy, efficiency and attention to detail.
But in the case of liquor service, legal liability
demands one more quality: responsibility.
Unlike food, alcohol can result in patrons leaving your establishment in a very different condition than when they arrived. Licensees can be held partially responsible for the results.
Bar and restaurant owners received a stark reminder of that responsibility in March, when the British Columbia Supreme Court delivered the toughest host liability decision in Canadian history. A well known hotel in Richmond, B.C. was found 50% liable for a patron’s drunk driving. It is the highest percentage of liability ever assigned to a Canadian bar.
In this case, the court was told that a patron was served alcohol although he was clearly drunk, and that he was then permitted to leave the bar and get into his car. An important aspect of the case was that another person in the bar recognized and drew attention to the situation, and tried to get the bar staff and other patrons to help ensure that the patron got home safely. The requests were allegedly ignored, and the patron got into his car and tried to drive himself home. On the way, he drove into a group of teenagers and injured five people.
Under B.C. liquor laws, licensees have a duty to protect patrons and third parties from harm that may result from alcohol consumption. Having been made aware that their customer was drunk and had no safe way home, the bar was legally required to intervene when he attempted to drive. By allowing him to drive away from the premises while intoxicated, the establishment breached its legal duty.
While this legal decision is currently under appeal, its impact has been felt in bars and pubs—and insurance offices—throughout Canada. Liquor laws are a provincial responsibility and vary across the country, but every province holds hosts and licencees liable for the effects of what they serve.
Most host liability cases don’t find bars more than 15 or 20% responsible for their patrons’ behaviour, says Arlene Keis, CEO of GO2, a tourism support organization in B.C.
GO2 is responsible for administering the province’s Serving It Right program, which trains bar staff in responsible liquor service. Certification through Serving It Right is mandatory for anyone serving liquor in a B.C. bar, pub or nightclub operating under a lounge licence. Staff who serve liquor in restaurants with a food-primary licence aren’t required to take the course, but Keis says many restaurant workers get certified anyway, because it provides valuable information and it’s valued by the industry.
B.C. was a leader in responsible service programs, and industry associations are very supportive of the program. “We’ve been doing it since 1989, so it’s part of the culture,” Keis says.
Other provinces have followed B.C.’s lead, and most now offer responsible service programs such as Ontario’s Smart Serve and the Alberta Server Intervention Program, although they are not mandatory in all provinces.
Serving It Right covers alcohol-related laws, regulations and enforcement policies; information about the physical and behavioural effects of alcohol; problems linked to excess drinking; how to identify patrons who have had too much to drink, and how to deal with them.
An industry-led initiative is exploring the possibility of taking Serving It Right one step further with a special certification for B.C. establishments that have initiated clear policies and procedures for responsible beverage service—including ongoing staff training and alternative transportation for patrons.
An innovative Toronto-based company is trying to make it easier to ensure that customers find a safe way home. TaxiMiles are cheques that are accepted by taxi companies across Canada.
“They come in $5 denominations, and it guarantees the intended use because they’re only usable for taxi fare,” explains TaxiMiles president and CEO Michael Roncon. “They have no cash surrender value.”
Restaurants and bars that keep TaxiMiles cheques on hand can use them in several ways. They can be sold by the restaurant, or they can be made available as gifts or
for employee use. Or the restaurant can use them to take care of impaired customers.
“Restaurants and bars can mitigate their liability by calling the cab through our system and making sure that they place that person in the cab,” Roncon says. “From a legal perspective, while it doesn’t guarantee liability reduction, it certainly mitigates it.”
Guests at catered events also need to find their way home. Whether it’s the caterer or the host, someone should make sure transportation is available. Roncon
says a transportation budget should be factored into event planning.
For anyone serving liquor, the cost of getting customers home safely is a bargain compared to the potential disaster of an intoxicated patron getting behind the
wheel. It can also be good for business.
TaxiMiles cheques can be ordered with the logo of a restaurant, bar or corporate event host.
“So when they issue them out they can actually communicate to their own community, to their own clients, and get some brand recognition,” Roncon says.
“I believe if you’re doing something of value in the community you should get recognition for it.”
Most people, he adds, will take a free ride home if they are given that opportunity.
“And I think that builds two things,” Roncon said.
“It builds a loyalty and a trust in where you are, and it certainly gets excellent recognition because people are going to talk about it.”