Should hosts be liable for the thoughtless actions of a guest – Part Two

In June 2022, the Supreme Court of Rockhampton delivered a decision in the matter of Dearden v Ryan & Anor, finding the occupiers of the property owed a duty of care to persons who were on their property, but suffered injury as a result of the criminal actions of a third party. Our review of the case can be found here.

For further context, Mr Dearden attended a birthday party of Daniel Ryan which was hosted at the property of Terence and Nicole Ryan. Mr Dearden suffered significant burns when another guest of the party, Robert Taylor, poured the remnants of a fuel container on Mr Dearden and then set Mr Dearden on fire to “wake him up”.

Prior to this incident, a grass fire had been put out by guests and the hosts of the party. The fuel container used later on Mr Dearden was found close to the grass fire and placed in a storage shed by their eldest son Matthew, believing it to be empty.

The findings by the court at the trial of first instance were that the conditions for risk of injury were created by hosting the party and providing alcohol to guests after the first grass fire had been lit and the fuel container had been found nearby. The court found the response of the hosts to store the container (that was suspected to be empty) in a nearby shed was not enough to prevent a risk of injury from occurring once they were aware the fuel container had already been used to start a fire.

The trial judge noted the following:

In the present case, it was not suggested that it is part of the plaintiff’s case that the defendants, as social hosts, owe a duty of supervision to social guests. I respectfully accept the analysis of Priestley JA in S v S that, in general, social hosts do not owe duties to social guests. However, in the present case, I do consider that the provision of the source of fuel, being the small jerry can, then placing it in a position that made it available to social guests, who were expected to be highly intoxicated, combined with the fact that there had been an earlier grassfire, does place upon the defendants a duty to take reasonable care to prevent harm from an uncontrolled fire lit by an intoxicated guest from petrol made available by the defendants.

On appeal, the court delivered a unanimous decision overturning the decision of the trial judge, finding that the Ryans were not obliged to take steps to anticipate Mr Taylor deliberately setting fire to Mr Dearden’s clothing.

His Honour, Justice McMurdo, noted in the Court of Appeal judgement:

“As it happened, the appellants did not usually keep fuel on this property. Still, to have done so would have been an ordinary and unremarkable practice. Indeed that is why Taylor entered the shed, because having grown up on a farm, that is where he expected to find fuel. As discussed earlier, Lord Goff cautioned that there are many things which might be described as possible sources of fire if interfered with by third parties which are commonplace in ordinary households. This may be said of small quantities of petrol which are commonly kept, not only in sheds on farms, but in suburban sheds and garages. As Gleeson CJ said in Modbury, the general rule is founded upon considerations of practicality and fairness. If occupiers were under a legal duty to take steps to prevent harm being caused to another by a third party from the misuse of things kept in an ordinary way on their properties, the burden would be intolerable.” (Our emphasis added)

The effect of the decision of the Court of Appeal confirms that homeowners and occupiers who host parties do not have to plan for every possible risk of injury and ensure steps are taken to minimise that risk, as the burden of doing so would be too great.

We are aware that Mr Dearden will appeal this case to the High Court of Australia. But for now, owners and occupiers of premises who are hosting parties should certainly remain mindful of their guests, but ultimately are not expected to take proactive steps to ensure guests do not perpetrate criminal acts.

This article has been co-written by Associate, Tristan Higham.

“The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.”
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