Whatever happens with the allegations made against ClubLink Corporation, directors and employees earlier this week, it would be prudent to contemplate what effects this incident and others could have on the entire Canadian golf industry.
ClubLink and 16 individuals face two charges each – supplying liquor to people who are apparently intoxicated and permitting drunkenness on licensed premises – after a car accident claimed the lives of three young people who were allegedly drinking at the Lake Joseph Club near Port Carling, Ont., last summer.
Another passenger was injured.
If convicted, ClubLink could receive fines of up to $250,000 for each count and the individuals could be fined up to $100,000 and receive 12-month jail sentences.
The accused are to appear in court on Jan. 27, but there have been other incidents before the ClubLink charges that suggest the golf facilities need to rethink policies on alcohol abuse on their premises.
“It certainly looks like somebody in Ontario has decided to step up the enforcement. This is the first time that we’ve seen charges against all those individuals,” said Jim Hylands, vice president of Simmlands Insurance Brokers, which insures hundreds of golf clubs across Canada.
“We have certainly seen fines levied against a golf club that over-served. We’ve seen licence suspensions against a golf course that over-served,” he added.
“We insure somewhere between 500 and 600 golf clubs in Canada right now and we see a minimum of four or five lawsuits a year, directly resulting from alcohol service at golf clubs and that’s over and above those situations that don’t result in enough injury to result in a lawsuit.”
One ramification of such cases is that insurance rates could soar in the near future, according to Hylands.
“The typical golf course is not located on a bus or subway route, so the only way they’re getting home is to drive. The lawsuits don’t necessarily involve driving either,” said Hylands. “All it takes is an impaired patron to fall down the stairs on the way out and you are responsible for their injury, according to the law.”
“Golf clubs have not been a target yet of the authorities and the lawsuits per se, so the impact on the insurance hasn’t really been there yet, but it will unless the industry gets control of it. It will start to impact certainly, both in rates and in coverage,” he said, adding insurance in Canada could reach American levels.
“Certainly, in the U.S., purchasing host liquor liability insurance is much more difficult and at about 10 times the price,” he said.
Hylands adds that responsible serving programs such as Smart Serve in Ontario, where the charges against ClubLink were laid, are well worth the investment for both employees and employers, whether or not they are mandatory depending on which province the golf club is located.
However, employees also need the backing of the club in order to benefit from such programs.
“One of the problems that the Smart Serve people tell us is that they can train the waiters and waitresses in the golf club bars, but these people tend to be young people – 20, 21, 22, 23 years of age. It’s a summer job. They’re going to university,” said Hylands.
“They find themselves in situations where they are being required by law to refuse liquor service to senior members at the club, sometimes board members, sometimes the club president,” he added.
“Remember, the person that they are dealing with is already impaired, so even if normally they are reasonable people, they’re not necessarily reasonable when impaired.”
“There is no way that that waiter or waitress can enforce no-service liquor policies and rules unless they know, without a doubt, that they will be backed up and supported 100 per cent by the management, the owners, the directors and the members of the club.
“If they don’t have that assurance and know that that’s the way it is and know that it’s required that they say no, they will automatically buckle under and serve the loud, obnoxious member who’s demanding a drink.”
The charges against ClubLink and the individuals have not been proven in court yet and Hylands emphasizes that many golf facilities are responsible, while others would prefer not to serve alcohol at all.
“They have to respond to what their consumers are demanding,” he said. “Even to the small golf club owner who may feel that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, that it’s creates more issues than it’s worth, if he doesn’t provide a liquor permit then, quite frankly, his patrons go elsewhere.”
That can create several challenges, including a patron who consumes several drinks on the golf course, then heads to the bar for more.
Hylands says there is now software that can transmit information from the beverage cart back to the bar about how much is consumed by each patron, but there is also the possibility that the golfer has hidden alcohol in his golf bag.
The best solution, he says, is for golf clubs to adopt a zero tolerance policy on excessive drinking and he says he knows several across the country that have done just that.
“We know of a number of golf clubs that have very, very strict policies regarding alcohol consumption on the premises,” he said. “Their position largely is that drinking to the point of impairment will not be tolerated, it is not acceptable at their clubs.
“The board of directors issue clear, written instructions to their staff that they are to impose the liquor act rules, they are to cut people off, they are to ask for car keys, they are to provide taxi service to get these people home.
“If a member refuses to turn over their car keys and leaves the club with the apparent intent of driving home, the staff is required to call the provincial or local municipal police immediately and report the vehicle.
“The other side of that is that the board of directors issues very clear warnings to members that failure to comply with the rules and arguing or creating a problem for the staff when you’re told no more are grounds for cancellation of membership,” he said.
Whatever happens with the charges against ClubLink, the golf industry should have already gotten the message from the potential severity of those charges.
“The good that may come out of it is that it rings the alarm bells and it may be a wake-up call for everybody else to realize that you could be next,” said Hylands.