Employers are throwing in-person parties again after a one-year hiatus. These parties benefit employers by boosting employee morale, strengthening bonds between employees, and strengthening the employer-employee bond, essential in today’s tight labor market. Alcohol is often served.
It is in part because the employer benefits from the holiday season and the consumption of alcohol on these holidays that the employer can be held liable if an employee’s alcohol consumption during the holiday season. he event subsequently contributes to an accident which injures a third party. An employer can be held liable even if the accident occurs after the employee arrives home safe and sound and later, while still intoxicated, drives another employee home.
This was the decision of the San Diego Division of the California Court of Appeal in Purton v. Marriott Internat., Inc. in 2013.
Michael Landri was a bartender at the Marriott Del Mar hotel. Landri reportedly got drunk at the Christmas party organized by Marriott to thank its employees in December 2009. Participation was voluntary.
Landri had a few drinks before going to the party and drank from the party, including from a flask filled with bourbon that he brought to the party. A bartender manager at the party would have refilled this flask at least once from the hotel’s liquor store. After returning home safe and sound, Landri left home to drive a colleague home. On this journey, Landri collided with another car, killing its driver, Dr Jared Purton. Landri was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter while driving a vehicle.
Dr Purton’s parents sued Landri, Marriott and others for wrongful death. The trial judge dismissed the action against Marriott because he found that Landri was not acting in the course of his employment when the accident occurred. The complainants appealed.
The tribunal Appeal Reinstates Purtons’ Claim Against Marriott
The court of appeal overturned.
An employer is generally liable to others for foreseeable injuries caused by its employees when the acts fall within the scope and scope of the employee’s job. This vicarious liability arises from acts of the employee which may benefit the employer or, failing that, from acts which are an integral part of the employment relationship. “So,” the Purton court said, “an employer’s vicarious liability can extend to employee negligence, willful and malicious torts, or acts that break a rule. express of the company and confer no benefit to the employer. “
The appeals court ruled that a jury could find Landri was acting in the course of his job at Marriott by drinking at the party for two separate reasons. First, a jury could conclude that the holiday season and the drinking there “have benefited Marriott by improving employee morale and strengthening employer-employee relationships.”
Second, a jury might find that the employees’ alcohol consumption at the party was an integral part of their jobs. The court cited evidence that Marriott implicitly allowed employees to drink at work, failed to follow through on its advertised plan to limit employee alcohol consumption to two drinks per person at the party, and did not limited the alcohol he served to beer and wine.
Marriott argued that exposing him to liability for an accident after Landri returned home safe and sound would mean that “any employee drinking alcohol at their workplace or at the employer’s party must be escorted home and kept there by such an escort, in violation of his or her privacy and personal freedoms.
But that argument, the court said, ignores that Marriott “created a risk of harm to its party by allowing an employee to consume alcohol to the point of becoming intoxicated.” The court continued, “Marriott could have reduced this risk in several ways, including adopting a policy of prohibiting the smuggling of alcohol, enforcing its drink ticket policy, serving drinks only for a limited period and by serving food. Alternatively, he could have eliminated the risk by banning alcohol.
An employer who offers alcohol on their holiday party should take steps to limit the amount of alcohol consumed by each employee or to ensure that employees do not drive after the party. A party without safeguards over alcohol consumption is a party without safeguards over an employer’s potential liability should a tragedy ensue.
Dan Eaton is a partner at the San Diego law firm Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek where his practice focuses on advocacy and counseling to employers. He is also an instructor at Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University, where he teaches business ethics and employment law. He can be contacted at [email protected]. His Twitter handle is @DanEatonlaw