The parents of a doctor killed by a drunk driver are suing the employer of that driver, alleging the company is liable for providing drinks to the worker at a holiday party.

bubblesAt the time of the crash, which occurred in San Diego, Calif., the impaired driver had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood stream. The worker left the party, stopped at home and then left to take a co-worker home. He drove his vehicle at more than 100 mph, losing control and crashing into a vehicle driven by the 33-year-old doctor. The physician was pronounced dead at the scene.

The drunk driver was arrested and convicted on criminal charges relating to the crash, sentenced to six years in prison. But the civil lawsuit focuses on the employer’s alleged negligence, under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The term is Latin for, “let the master answer,” and it’s primarily used to hold companies accountable for the actions of workers.

However, this kind of action is typically pursued when the negligent worker is acting within the scopeof his or her employment. So in crash cases, we would typically see this in situations involving commercial drivers or others who are operating a motor vehicle for work purposes when the crash happens.

There have been drunk driving accident lawsuits that focus on suppliers of alcohol. These are known as “dram shop” lawsuits. State laws vary, but in Florida, per F.S. 768.125, such actions can only be taken against licensed sellers who sell or furnish alcohol either to minors or individuals they know to be habitual abusers of alcohol. The same law is not applicable to social hosts who provide alcohol to individuals who are subsequently involved in a crash. (Those individuals may, however, be held criminally responsible if alcohol was served to a minor.)

California’s dram shop law is even more stringent, restricting liability to vendors who serve to minors – with no allowance for liability for actions of customers who were served alcohol despite being known alcoholics or obviously impaired.

And yet, the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth District ruled in Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. that the company could potentially be held liable for decedent’s wrongful death due to its employee’s drunk driving.

Prior to the crash, worker had attended an annual holiday party hosted for employees. Management limited the the number of per-employee drink tickets, and served only beer and wine. However, when of the bartenders at the event provided a flask filled with whiskey. When the flask was emptied, a supervisor for the hotel refilled it with the hotel’s own liquor.

The bartender with the flask then drove home with a co-worker. After 20 minutes or so, he left again to take the co-worker home. It was then that the crash occurred.

In the civil case, trial court granted defense motion for summary judgment, agreeing that any possible liability the hotel had under the theory of respondeat superior ended when the worker got home safely.

However, the appellate court reversed.

Although many courts have ruled employer liability is limited to acts within the scope of employment, there have been a number of others (Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, to name a few) that have held employers may be liable for injuries that are proximately caused by a condition created within the scope of employment.

The appeals court ruled the purpose of a company holiday party is to strengthen social ties and work-related discussions among employees. Because companies benefit from these things, they must assume the risk created in order to achieve that, the court ruled.

Appeals court further ruled the bartender’s actions that night in serving/consuming alcohol occurred within the scope of employment. Thus, the hotel may be held liable.

The case was remanded to trial court to resume proceedings, which are now underway.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Marriott could be liable for drunk driving employee, May 5, 2015, By Shannon Handy, CBS8

Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. , July 31, 2013

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Alleged Florida Drunk Driver Texts Minutes Before Crash, May 23, 2015, Fort Myers Drunk Driving Accident Attorney Blog