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Alcohol service policy in the club industry

Denis Matte headshotBy Dennis Matte, CCM, General Manager/COO, Scarboro Golf & Country Club

On July 3, 2008, three young adults were tragically killed when their car plunged into the Joseph River in cottage country just north of Toronto. This accident has had, and will continue to have, a profound impact on the club industry.

As a result of this accident, 16 executives and staff of the Lake Joseph Club were charged in January, 2009 under the Liquor License Act of Ontario. The charges stemmed from the alleged over serving of the youths. In all, 31 charges were laid, consisting primarily of permitting drunkenness on licensed premises and supplying liquor to apparently intoxicated persons. This case has sent shockwaves through our industry and sent many operators scrambling for advice and policies. It served as a great reminder to all of us about the legal risks associated with the service of alcohol at our clubs.

A cleverly written policy may help you mitigate losses but will not absolve you of all of liability. It takes much more than that. There needs to be a conscious change in your culture, one that is accepted and adopted by the staff, management, board and, most importantly, by the members. Without the buy-in from all those involved, all of your education and policies will be a waste of time. The management and board must support the service staff fully in decisions they make on the floor regarding cutting a patron off. The members must take responsibility for their own actions and obey the rules. If one or more of these fundamental rules are broken, serious problems will arise.

How does a club or organization protect itself from the possible ramifications of a lawsuit?  How do you establish a zero tolerance culture on drinking and driving and excessive drinking at your facility?  How do you reduce your risk?  The following paragraphs attempt to assist you in becoming proactive with this most serious issue.

Liquor Liability

All provinces have liquor legislation. While the information in this article is from Ontario’s Liquor License Act, it is likely similar to other provinces. There are two important sections you need to be aware of: Section 29 states that “no person shall sell or supply liquor to be sold or supplied to any person who is or appears to be intoxicated.” Section 30 adds: “The following rules apply if a person or an agent or employee of a person sells liquor to or for a person whose condition is such that the consumption of liquor would apparently intoxicate the person or increase the person’s intoxication so that he or she would be in danger of causing injury to himself or herself or damage to another person or the property of another person.”

In addition to the Act, courts have also brought into play the concept of “duty of care.” As our clubs are commercial providers of alcohol to guests and make money from doing so, we have an obligation to protect them. Alcohol is a drug, and as such, affects the chemistry of the body and the brain. Patrons under the influence of alcohol may lose the ability to use proper judgment as to whether or not to drive a vehicle. Licensed establishments must do everything within their power to protect their guests.

Serving policy

As a stated earlier, a well written policy, on its own, will not absolve you of liability stemming from an over serving incident. It will, however, help mitigate losses by showing the courts your establishment willingness to comply with the legislation and provide responsible service of alcohol. I believe that two policies are necessary for all clubs, one on the service of alcohol and one on the consumption of alcohol. These must be endorsed by your board, or owners, and should include the following points:

  • servers must be at least 18 years of age and have undergone Smart Serve training
  • only members and guests of legal drinking age will be served
  • alcohol service shall be denied to any patron who appears to be intoxicated
  • liquor may not be brought onto or off the licensed premises
  • intoxicated patrons will be asked about transportation arrangements and will be asked to hand over his/her car keys and arrange for a taxi or alternate transportation
  • police will be called should an intoxicated guest refuse to give up his/her car keys or seek alternate transportation
  • self service of alcohol is prohibited
  • any incidents involving intoxicated patrons should be documented, logged and signed by all staff involved

Once formulated, your policies should be sent to legal counsel for approval and then circulated to all staff and the entire membership. I include our club’s as an example.

Managing the risk

Let’s face it; no matter what you do, it will be difficult to achieve 100% compliance. All you can do as an operator is to minimize and manage risk. Clubs have their own inherent issues which complicate things for the operator. Simply being aware of the issues will go a long way in minimizing your exposure. Most, or all, of your members drive to the club, thus increasing your exposure.  While against the law, guests may bring their own liquor to the club. Do you check bags and/or lockers?  Drinking may occur on the course. It will be difficult to monitor consumption. Complicating matters is that they may also be driving a motorized cart while intoxicated. Many organizations or tournaments offer liquor as prizes, a practice which should be discouraged.

Knowing the above and recognizing the potential pitfalls is only half the battle. You must also develop strategies and programs to help you and your staff minimize your exposure. You must ensure that you have adequate insurance protection.  Review your coverage with your broker/insurer and amend coverages if needed. Those extra premiums now may save you larger amounts in the future. Training, training and more training for your staff and your members, this has to be ongoing and not simply a once and your done approach. Enforce the rules. It makes no sense to establish rules and policies unless they will be monitored, enforced and supported by the Board and management. Finally, document all incidents involving alcohol consumption that may appear to be unusual or troublesome and have it signed by all staff members who were involved.


It is unfortunate that it seems to take a tragic event to spur changes in peoples’ attitudes or procedures. The club industry has perhaps suffered from this tendency as change in this type of environment always seems to be slow in transpiring. Based on the buzz created by the Clublink lawsuit in January, it would appear that the message has been received loud and clear by many clubs. It is now up to all of us to ensure that this mood of change does not dissipate. Hopefully fewer senseless deaths will be experienced as a result of this enhanced awareness. Enjoy and drink (and serve) responsibly.

Scarboro GolfPolicy: Scarboro Golf & Country Club

The service of alcoholic beverages to members and guests can lead to a variety of problematic situations which could result in serious liability to the Club, its directors and staff.  According to the courts, the responsibility to those injured or killed, or whose property is damaged, as a result of impaired driving extends beyond the drivers to the commercial hosts who served the drivers and then, knowingly or carelessly, did not prevent them from driving.

With this in mind, and in the best interest of the Club, its members, directors and staff, this alcohol serving policy is in effect. Members are requested to abide by it and to cooperate with management and staff in the enforcement of this policy.

Alcohol serving policy

  1. Members and guests are encouraged to use and enjoy the Club’s facilities as long as they abide by the laws of the Province of Ontario, and the rules and regulations of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission which govern the service of alcoholic beverages.
  2. Guests must be accompanied by a member who is responsible for their conduct.
  3. All alcoholic beverages sold upon our licensed premises must be consumed within same and cannot be taken therefrom.
  4. No alcoholic beverages, other than those sold upon our licensed premises, shall be brought into the Club.
  5. Persons under the age of 19 years will not be served alcoholic beverages. When in doubt, the individual(s) will be required to provide acceptable proof of age, on request, to the server.
  6. Even though not visibly intoxicated, persons who, in the opinion of the server, are drinking too much, or too much too quickly, will be tactfully reminded to exercise moderation in their drinking, or asked to assign a safe, designated, non-drinking driver to take them home.
  7. Persons who are visibly intoxicated will be refused alcoholic beverage service and will be asked to surrender their automobile keys.
  8. Persons who have been refused alcoholic beverage service, for their own safety and for the safety of others, will be given two options: either arrange for a family member or friend to drive them home or take a taxi.  The Club has arrangements with local taxi businesses where the cab fare can be charged to the member’s Club account.
  9. Should the member or guest refuse either option and not provide a plausible alternative, he or she will be advised of management’s legal responsibilities not to allow him/her to drive and that the police will be contacted should they attempt to drive.
  10. Persons who have been refused alcoholic beverage service, and who react violently or dangerously to the situation, will be turned over to the police for handling and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken by the Board of Directors.
  11. The management and staff of Scarboro Golf & Country Club are required to enforce this policy.

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