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Hunt v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. (2002), Ont. C.A.

In December 1994, Sutton Group Realty held an office Christmas party during business hours. Linda Hunt, a part-time receptionist, consumed alcohol while she worked. Her employer was concerned about the amount she had consumed and told Hunt that if she continued to drink he would call her husband to pick her up. Hunt did continue to drink, but the call was never made.

Hunt left the office party at quitting time, refusing two offers of rides home, and drove to a nearby pub where she continued to drink with co-workers until around 8 p.m. Again she rejected offers to stay overnight with colleagues rather than drive home in a snowstorm. On the way home, Hunt lost control of her vehicle and collided with a truck, suffering several injuries, including brain damage. She was later convicted of impaired driving. Hunt sued her employer for negligence, claiming her employer should have prevented her from leaving her place of employment while she was intoxicated.

A jury trial was held in Ontario Superior Court, but three weeks into the trial, the judge discharged the jury, after accepting arguments from the plaintiff’s lawyer that the issues were too complex for ordinary people to understand. The judge found that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff to make sure that the employee did not become intoxicated while on company premises, a state that would interfere with her ability to drive home. The trial judge awarded Hunt nearly $300 000 in damages. The defendant appealed the decision claiming the trial judge abused his discretion by refusing to let the jury determine liability-a question involving common sense and community values, which are precisely the things juries are best suited to decide.

In August 2002, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the appeal, set aside the judgment, and ordered a new trial. In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel said that the evidence was “typically complicated” but not unusual and something criminal juries are asked to assess regularly.

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