Employer Liability for Employee Actions: Are You Ready For Your Company’s Holiday Party?
Many companies start planning their holiday party now. Employers need to know that an employer can be held liable for accidents and injuries caused by their employees who over indulge themselves with alcohol at the party, even if the employee initially made it home safely! You read that correctly. The California Court of Appeal, in Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., recently held that the company was potentially liable for a fatal motor vehicle accident caused by one of its employees who had attended the company’s hosted party. While the employee arrived home safely, the employee left about 20 minutes later to drive another co-worker home. The co-worker was also intoxicated. During this trip the employee struck another car, killing its driver. The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer on the ground that the employer’s potential liability under the doctrine ofrespondeat superior ended when the employee arrived home.
The court of appeal reversed and held that an employer may be found liable for its employee’s tortious conduct “as long as the proximate cause of the injury occurred within the scope of employment. It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employee’s negligent conduct occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting within the scope of his or her employment.” The court explained that a jury could conclude that the proximate cause of the injury, i.e., the employee’s alcohol consumption, and the negligent conduct, i.e., the car accident, occurred within the scope of his employment. The court further found that the going and coming rule, which generally exempts an employer from liability for the torts of its employees committed while going to or coming home from their work, was an “analytical distraction” because the “thrust of [plaintiff's] claim for vicarious liability was that [the employee] was an `instrumentality of danger’ because of what had happened to her at work.” As such, the court focused on the “act on which vicarious liability is based and not on when the act results in injury.” The court also stated that the record presented sufficient evidence for a finding that the employee in question breached a duty of due care he owed to the public once he became intoxicated and that the employer “created the risk of harm at its party by allowing an employee to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication.”
This case certainly gives the definition of “within the course and scope of employment” a broader meaning. That said, the moral of the story: (1) don’t drink and drive; (2) don’t let your employees do so either; and (3) limit your employees’ consumption of alcohol at company events.