Company parties are likely to be a bit less “festive” as courts come down on parties with open bars and unlimited drinks.
In July 2013, the California Court of Appeals was the latest to hold that an employer may be liable if its employee gets intoxicated at a company party, makes it home safely and then injures a third party. Yes, you read correctly, the employer may be liable for actions taken by a drunk employee after he’s safely home.
With this ruling, California joins Oregon, Washington and Hawai’i.
Just like most American companies, the San Diego Marriott del Mar hotel holds a holiday party for its employees. And like most holiday parties, alcohol is served. For the 2009 party, Marriott del Mar managers had initially set a limit of two servings of beer or wine per person but, once the party got started, they had hard liquor brought out for all to enjoy. As expected, some employees got drunk.
Michael Landri, a Marriott bartender, had the day off and pre-partied at home with a beer and a shot of Jack Daniels. Landri took a personal supply of Jack Daniels to the party in a flask. He carpooled with four others to the party, where he regularly refilled his flask from the hotel’s liquor supply.
At the end of the party, Landri and his carpool were driven back to Landri’s house. Twenty minutes later, Landri drove one of his co-workers home because the co-worker was too drunk to drive. En route, Landri rear-ended a vehicle, killing its driver. Landri’s BAC was .16, twice the legal limit in California.
Landri was sentenced to six years in prison. The victim’s family sued Landri and his employer, Marriott.
The Ruling and Its Implications
For nearly 60 years, it has been California law that an employer may be liable if an employee gets drunk at a company party and hits someone while driving home. Here, Marriott defended the case arguing that once its employee got home safely, it was off the hook for anything he did afterwards, which is how courts in Arizona, Illinois, Alaska and Kansas have come out.
The California court disagreed, finding that Marriott was arguably negligent in allowing Landri to get drunk at its party, so it could be liable for anything he did until he sobered up. Basically, it said that after loading the weapon, Marriott cannot dodge responsibility when someone gets shot. Moreover, it’s not enough to call a cab or get the drunk employee a ride home because the employee will still be drunk and thus a danger to himself and society.
To be clear, the appeals court did not hold that the employer is ALWAYS responsible for a drunk employee’s actions. But it said that a judge or jury could reasonably find the employer liable based on the specific facts, so the case couldn’t be thrown out prior to trial.
By the court’s logic, victims of domestic violence might sue their abuser’s employers when the abuser drinks at an employer sanctioned event and then abuses them.
So, as unfestive and socially awkward as it may feel, employees should prepare themselves for the end of the unlimited open bar office parties.
I encourage you to read the underlying cases yourself and come to your own conclusion:
- Purton v. Marriott, D060475 (Cal. Ct. App. July 31, 2013) (Landini’s case)
- Boynton v. McKales, 139 Cal. App.2d 777 (1956) (employee driving home drunk from a company party)
- Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co., 120 Cal.App.3d 157 (1981) (employee driving home drunk from a company Christmas party)
- Luth v. Rogers & Babler Constr. Co., 507 P.2d 761, 764, fn. 14 (Alaska 1973) (sober employee driving home from work)
- Parnell v. Peak Oilfield Serv. Co., 174 P.3d 757, 769 (Alaska 2007)
- Mulvihill v. Union Oil Co., 859 P.2d 1310, 1312-13 (Alaska 1993) (employer not liable for accident while employee was driving to see his fiancé)
- Bruce v. Chas Roberts Air Conditioning, 166 Ariz. 221, 226 (Ct.App. 1990) (Arizona law)
- Holtz v. Amax Zinc Co., 165 Ill.App.3d 578, 583–584 (1988) (Illinois law)
- Thies v. Cooper, 243 Kan. 149, 156 (1988) (Kansas law)
- Wong-Leong v. Hawaiian Indep. Refinery, 76 Hawai’i. 433, 441 (1994) (Hawai’i law)
- Chesterman v. Barmon, 305 Or. 439, 443–444 (1988) (Oregon law)
- Dickinson v. Edwards, 105 Wash.2d 457, 468–469 (1986) (en banc) (Washington law);
- Chastain v. Litton Systems, Inc., 694 F.2d 957, 962 (4th Cir. 1982) (employee driving home from a company Christmas party in North Carolina)
Shirish Gupta is an award-winning mediator and arbitrator with JAMS. As part of his practice, he regularly mediates/arbitrates employment and personal injury disputes.
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