Author: Beth Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor
August 15, 2013
As a new court ruling illustrates, employers planning an end-of-the-summer gathering should be aware that they could be liable for injuries caused by an intoxicated employee if the employee consumed alcohol at a company-sponsored party and within the scope of employment.
In Purton v. Marriott International Inc., Michael Landri, a Marriott hotel bartender, attended a company-sponsored party at which alcohol was served and became intoxicated. Party attendance was not mandatory. Each employee received two drink tickets, and only beer and wine were served. At the end of the night, Landri obtained a ride home with co-workers and arrived safely. Approximately 20 minutes later, Landri left his home to drive another intoxicated co-worker home and subsequently struck and killed a third party, Dr. Jared Purton. Purton's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Landri, Marriott and others.
Purton alleged that Marriott was liable because the party was intended for the benefit of Marriott employees to improve employee relations and company morale. Further, Marriott had supplied the alcohol that caused Landri to become intoxicated and had permitted Landri to leave the party in an inebriated condition and eventually get behind the wheel. Marriott contended that it was not liable because the accident occurred off duty and outside the scope of Landri's employment. The trial court agreed, dismissing the case on summary judgment, and Purton appealed.
On appeal, the court recognized that an employer can be liable for acts if they are:
- Committed within the scope of an employee's employment;
- Undertaken with the employer's permission; and
- Of some benefit to the employer or incidental to the employment relationship.
Here, the court reasoned that although the accident occurred off duty and after the company party, Marriott could be held liable because it provided the alcohol that caused Landri to become intoxicated. The court found it irrelevant that the car accident itself occurred at a time when Landri was no longer acting within the scope of employment because there was ample evidence that Landri was acting within the scope of his employment when he became intoxicated at the company party. Further, the party and the consumption of alcohol benefitted Marriott by improving employee morale and employee relations as Marriott held the party to thank its employees, express holiday spirit, and encourage team building. The court ruled that Marriott's liability did not end when Landri returned to his own home safely because the focus is not on when the injury occurred but on the act that caused the injury. Further, Marriott created the risk of harm by permitting employees such as Landri to become intoxicated. Thus, the court denied Marriott's motion for summary judgment and sent the case back to the trial court to be considered by a trier of fact.
In light of the Purton ruling, employers should take steps to minimize potential liability stemming from employer-sponsored events and companies parties by limiting the number of alcoholic drinks employees are permitted to consume, serving drinks for a limited time period serving food, designating an employee or supervisor to monitor the alcohol intake of all employees, and checking employees for sobriety before they leave to potentially get behind the wheel, or by banning alcohol entirely.