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Employers Beware! You Can Be Held Liable For Drunk Employee’s Car Accident Following Company Event

As Employers begin to plan their spring/summer workplace events which may involve alcohol, we wanted to remind everyone of a recent appellate decision that serves as a cautionary tale for all and provide some useful tips.

In Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. (2013) 218 Cal. App. 4th 499, the Employer decided to throw a holiday party for its employees at its Hotel. The managers decided that each party attendee would receive two drink tickets. They planned to serve only beer and wine. An employee attended the party snuck in his own flask of liquor. Even though the Hotel had a two drink ticket limit, the General Manager for the Hotel’s restaurant started acting as bartender at the party, and was observed serving hard liquor (which had been taken from the Hotel’s liquor supply) to the employees including filling the same employee’s flask with hard liquor. The employee left the party while intoxicated and arrived home safely. However, this same employee later left his home to drive a fellow drunk co-worker home. During this second outing, the employee struck another vehicle and killed its driver. In a subsequent lawsuit, the employer argued that it should not be vicariously liable for the actions of the employee. The employer moved for summary judgment on the basis that the employer’s potential liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior ended once the employee arrived home from the party. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on these grounds.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment in favor of the employer. According to the Court, the employer may be held liable for an employee’s torts if the proximate cause of the injury occurred within the scope of employment. “It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employee’s negligent conduct (here, the car accident) occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting within the scope of his or her employment.” Here, the court found that a reasonable trier of fact could find that the employee was acting within the scope of employment when he became intoxicated at the employer’s party because the employer served alcohol and the consumption of alcohol boosted morale between employer and employee. According to the court, there was no legal justification to cut off the employer’s liability simply because the employee managed to make it home safely after the party. Accordingly, the judgment in favor of the employer was reversed.

It is important to note that the appellate court did not determine that Marriott was liable as a matter of law for its employee’s negligent actions; rather, the court of appeal remanded the case back to the trial court for consideration of whether the employee’s conduct was so unforeseeable that his employer should not be held responsible.

Tips To Avoid Potential Liability At A Workplace Social Event
Although the Purton case is an extreme case, Employers do not want to find themselves in the same situation. The Appellate Court in Purton actually commented on ways that the Employer could have lessened its risks, by doing the following:

  1. Having a policy prohibiting the smuggling of alcohol into its party;
  2. Serving drinks for only a limited time period and serving food;
  3. Enforcing its drink ticket policy; or
  4. Eliminating the risk all together by forbidding alcohol.

We also suggest the additional ways to lesson an Employer’s risks:

  1. Provide complimentary taxi rides to employees with access to alcohol at a company-sponsored event;
  2. Have a no-tolerance alcohol/drug policy and carefully consider the extent to which the employer wishes to deviate from that policy for social or client events;
  3. Close the open bar. Make it a cash bar to keep everything under control; or
  4. Hire a professional bartender, who knows when to stop serving patrons. Don’t rely on supervisors to chaperone the party, as they should not be charged with monitoring employee alcohol consumption.

Please also note that none of these options (other than forbidding alcohol entirely) would have necessarily released Marriott from liability in the Purton case, although the court may have reached a different decision if Marriott had engaged in more stringent measures to prevent excessive alcohol consumption at a company-sponsored event, including sticking to its drink ticket limit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ms. Silva is a graduate of University of the Pacific. She is senior counsel in the firm’s Employment Practices Group. She is a former prosecutor and has considerable trial experience. Contact her at rsilva@tysonmendes.com

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