Employer May Be Responsible for Post-Company Party Tragic Events

A California appellate court recently held that an employer may be responsible for a drunk driving collision that transpired following a non-mandatory company party where an employee imbibed excessive alcohol. Purton v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., No. D060475 (Cal. Ct. App. Jul. 31, 2013).

What was intended to be a celebratory event thanking employees during the holiday season — ended in tragedy. A bartender employee at the Marriott Del Mar Hotel (“Marriott”) consumed excessive quantities of alcohol prior to and during a company-sponsored holiday party in 2009. Even though Marriott sought to limit the employees to two drink tickets and only serve beer and wine, those rules were not enforced and the employee brought his own liquor in a flask to the company party, which was also refilled by another employee. The employee drove home shortly after the party and then left his home and returned behind the wheel of his car to drive an intoxicated co-worker home. While driving at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, he struck and killed another driver on the road.  The employee was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and received a six-year prison sentence. The family of the deceased sued Marriott for wrongful death, holding them responsible for the accident.

Marriott asked the court to dismiss the case because the employee was “not acting within the scope of his employment” at the time of the fatal accident. Marriott also argued that it should not be held liable because it had no right to control its employee after he reached home. The appellate court rejected both of these arguments in reversing the trial court’s decision, stating 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 injuries proximately caused by the employees.”  Thus, the case was allowed to go forward against Marriott on the factual questions of liability and damages.

Note to Employers: With this decision, employers might now be responsible for the conduct of employees when they become intoxicated at an employer-sponsored event, even when reasonable steps are taken to keep employees safe from hurting themselves or others.  Thus, with the holiday season approaching, California employers are urged to take steps to limit or eliminate alcohol offerings at events.  If alcohol is offered, employers are well advised to set rules for imbibing, offer alternatives, and provide for safe transportation of employees.  This could hold true for events such as company dinners and other less formal outings.

For more information, please contact:  Nadia P. Bermudez or Rodrigo Guevara at 619-564-8400