Employers May Now Be Liable For Accidents Caused By Intoxicated Employees
Posted August 19, 2013

Does your company throw an annual holiday party or other social events? Do you serve alcoholic beverages? If you answered yes to both questions, the recent holding of Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 10154 (July 31, 2013) should factor heavily into your party planning considerations.

In Purton, an employee of Marriott consumed alcoholic beverages both before and during Marriott’s annual holiday party. The employee left the party after about three hours and arrived home safely. About twenty minutes later, the employee left his home again to drive another intoxicated co-worker home. During that drive (while traveling at speeds upwards of 100 mph with a .16 blood alcohol level), the employee rear-ended and killed a young doctor. The employee was criminally prosecuted, and his family sued Marriott under a theory of “respondeat superior” liability, arguing that Marriott was responsible for the actions of the intoxicated employee, because his drunk driving accident only happened as a result of the employee becoming intoxicated in the course and scope of his employment – at Marriott’s holiday party.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Marriott on the grounds that all of Marriott’s respondeat superior liability ended at the time the intoxicated employee arrived home safely. Unfortunately for employers, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the decision and found Marriott liable on three separate grounds: (1) An employer may be found liable for its employee’s wrongdoing as long as the proximate cause of the injury (here, the alcohol consumption) occurred within the course and scope of employment; (2) It is irrelevant that the 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; and (3) No legal justification exists for terminating the employer’s liability simply because the employee arrived home safely from the employer-hosted party.

Ordinarily, California employers are not responsible for the acts of their employees once they leave work. In this case, however, the

appellate court found that the employer remained liable for subsequent events if the original alcohol consumption occurred during the course and scope of employment. The court stated, “We think that if a commercial enterprise chooses to allow its employees to consume alcoholic beverages for the benefit of the enterprise, fairness requires that the enterprise should bear the burden of the injuries proximately caused by the employee’s consumption.”

Given the extreme holding of the Purton case, what can employers do to lessen the potential for liability at a workplace social event? The Court of Appeal offered four suggestions:

  • The employer should have a strictly-enforced policy against an employee smuggling alcohol into the party;
  • The employer should enforce a strict drink limit per employee;
  • The employer should serve alcoholic beverages only for a limited period of time at the event and should serve food in addition to alcohol; or
  • The employer should forbid alcohol at the party entirely.

Although not mentioned in Purton, an employer also may wish to provide complimentary taxi rides to employees with access to alcohol at a company-sponsored event. In addition, every employer should have a no-tolerance alcohol/drug policy and should carefully consider the extent to which the employer wishes to deviate from that policy for social or client events. Note that none of these options (other than forbidding alcohol entirely) would release 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. In Purton, there were a number of particularly concerning facts that likely influenced the appellate court’s decision: there was a fatality involved; the employee smuggled in a flask of whiskey, which he later refilled at Marriott’s bar; Marriott encouraged employees to drink by providing drink tickets, and Marriott failed to enforce its own two-drink limit at the party.

The court did not address whether it would apply the same rationale to a client dinner or other more limited social events, but the decision gave us no reason to believe that there would be any other result in the case of injuries resulting from company-sanctioned consumption of alcohol. Unfortunately, this case potentially renders employers liable for employee accidents or injuries for as long as the alcohol remains in the employee’s system, as long as that alcohol was originally served at an company-sponsored or employer-sanctioned event.

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 . It remains to be seen whether the ultimate decision (if reported) will create a broader legal standard impacting all employment-related social drinking; this is a case that we will be watching closely as it moves through the legal process. In the meantime, California employers should consider limiting or eliminating the consumption of alcohol while on working time or at company events, and take the precautions discussed above to enhance their defense against liability.

For questions about consumption of alcohol at employee events, or any other employment law issue, please contact any of our employment attorneys at LightGabler.