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California Case Extends Liability to Employer for Drunk Employee

Bad news for employers but potentially good news for victims of drunk-drivers. A recent Court of Appeal ruling has extended liability to an employer for an accident caused by a drunk employee after a work-sponsored party.

In Purton v. Marriott Internat., Inc., 2013 Cal. App. LEXIS 607 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. July 31, 2013), an employee consumed numerous alcoholic beverages at a work hosted party. After becoming intoxicated, the employee left the work part and returned home.

After returning home safely, he left later that evening to drive an intoxicated coworker home. While doing so, he struck another car, killing the other driver.

The family of the person killed in the accident sued the intoxicated employee, as well as his employer. In the civil suit, the employer brought a successful Motion for Summary Judgment and was dismissed from the action.

On appeal, the Appellate Court reversed the dismissal, finding that there existed triable issues of fact as to the employer’s liability. The Court held a reasonable trier of fact could find that the employee acted negligently by becoming intoxicated at the party, and that this act was within the scope of his employment and proximately caused the car accident which resulted in the motorist’s death.

A trier of fact could consider, among other things, the disputed evidence regarding whether the employee drove home from the party and whether it was foreseeable he might attempt to drive later in the evening while still intoxicated.

The Court noted that it was possible that a jury could conclude that the employee’s negligent act occurred within the scope of employment because the party and drinking of alcoholic beverages were a conceivable benefit to the employer or were a customary incident to the employment relationship so as to render the employee’s act of drinking to be within the scope of employment.

This expansion of liability should make employers think twice about having alcohol at work-sponsored events. Employers who ply their employees with alcohol should now be conscious of, or provide, after-party transportation for their employees.

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