Alcohol and the Company-Sponsored Event

If your company throws holiday parties or other social events for its employees, the recent California appellate court holding in Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., should make you reconsider whether to serve alcoholic beverages at such events. In Purton, a California appellate court held that an employer could be liable for its employee’s off-duty accident as long as the proximate cause of the accident (alcohol consumption) occurred within the scope of employment.

Michael Landri, a bartender at the Marriott Del Mar Hotel, drank alcoholic beverages both before and during the Marriott’s annual holiday party. Prior to leaving his house, Landri had a beer and a shot of whiskey. Landri also brought a flask of whiskey to the party. Although Marriott limited the alcohol it served to beer and wine and limited each employee to two drinks, during the party Landri refilled his whiskey flask from Marriott’s liquor supply.

After approximately three hours, Landri and others co-workers left the party and arrived safely at his home. About twenty minutes after arriving home, Landri left to drive an intoxicated co-worker home. During that drive, Landri rear-ended a vehicle and killed a young doctor. At the time of the accident, Landri was traveling at speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour with a blood alcohol level of .16. Landri was convicted of vehicular manslaughter.

The doctor’s family sued Marriott for wrongful death under a theory of “respondeat superior” liability. The family argued Marriott was responsible for the actions of its intoxicated employee because his drunk driving accident occurred as a result of Landri’s becoming intoxicated in the scope of his employment at Marriott’s holiday party. Marriott asked the trial court to dismiss the case, arguing that Landri was not in the scope of his employment at the time of his accident. Agreeing with Marriott, the trial court held that Marriott’s respondeat superior liability ended at the time Landri arrived home safely from the holiday party.

Unfortunately for Marriott, the appellate court disagreed, rejecting the argument that Landri was acting outside the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. Instead, the appellate court held there was sufficient evidence establishing Landri was acting within the scope of his employment when he became intoxicated. The appellate court found the purpose of the holiday party was celebration, employee appreciation, holiday spirit, and team building. Therefore, the appellate court concluded that a jury could find that Landri was acting within the scope of his employment when he consumed alcohol at the party.

Marriott also argued that even if Landri was within the scope of his employment when he consumed the alcohol, its liability ended when he arrived home safely. The appellate court disagreed, finding “no reasonable justification for cutting off an employer’s potential liability as a matter of law simply because an employee reaches home.” The appellate court explained that an employer’s respondeat superior liability is not based on when an injury occurs, but on the act causing the injury. Here, the act causing the injury was Landri’s intoxication.

Finally, Marriott argued that it should not be held liable because it had no right to control Landri’s conduct once he arrived home. The appellate court again disagreed, stating Marriott could not ignore “that it created the risk of harm at its party by allowing an employee to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication.” The appellate court explained, “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’ consumption.”

This case is a game-changer for employers and how they hosted social events. The appellate court offered four suggestions for employers to lessen the potential for liability at a workplace social event:

• 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.

It is important to point out that none of the above suggestions, other than forbidding alcohol entirely, would completely prevent potential employer liability. Based on the Purton holding, an employer can potentially be liable for any and all accidents or injuries caused by the employee occurring during the time period the alcohol remains in the employee’s system, as long as the alcohol was originally served at an employer-sponsored or sanctioned event.