Did the California Appeals Court End the Company Holiday Party?

Dear Clients, Colleagues, and Friends,

In a recent issue of Client Alert, we illustrated just how far the courts are going to hold the “deep pocket” responsible to pay damages even though he or she didn’t cause them. We wrote about John Catsimatidis, a modern business hero and successful immigrant entrepreneur, being found personally liable for millions of dollars in damages because someone in his company was found to violate certain Federal employment laws (https://jmvlaw.com/protect-personal-assets/) so much for the notion that a corporation will shield its shareholders from personal liability.

Last year, I wrote about an even more alarming case, Purton vs. Marriott International, and given we are in the holiday party season, the case was worth repeating. The incident happened in December, 2009. Jack Landri, a bartender at the Marriott del Mar Hotel, had a beer and a shot of whiskey at home before going to the company holiday party. Everyone at the party was given two tickets for wine or beer. No hard liquor like whiskey or tequila was served. However, Jack brought a flask with about five ounces of whiskey in it to the party. Not only did he finish his flask but the bartender at the party refilled it with whiskey from Marriott’s supply. After three hours, Jack went home with some of his co-workers.

Later that night, after he arrived home from the party, he decided to drive his drunken co-worker home. Traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph and a .16 blood alcohol level, Landri smashed into the car in front of him, driven by a young doctor named Jared Purton, killing him instantly.

Dr. Purton’s parents sued Marriott for wrongful death. The hotel chain asked the trial court to dismiss the case, claiming that its responsibility ended when its employee arrived home safely after the party. The trial court agreed with Marriott and dismissed the case.

Dr. Purton’s parents appealed the case. The California 4th District Appeals Court did not impose “respondeat superior” liability on Marriott as a matter of law. Rather, by reversing Marriott’s summary judgment, the court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether the employee’s decision to drive while intoxicated, even after returning home from an employer-sponsored event, was so unusual as to render the resulting accident as unforeseeable.

It all boils down to this: If you are an employer and host company parties, outings, BBQ’s, or other employee appreciation events, you should rethink your alcohol consumption policy for your employees, because if there is an accident or injury, your company may have to pay up. Or, alternatively, assign a person to monitor the state of the employees before allowing them to leave the event and perhaps, even administer a breathalyzer test to meet the apparent burden of “foreseeability” by the employer. This trend to blame the business owner (deep pocket) for any bad behavior is disturbing. This case should be a “loud and clear” message to employers to change their practices, and to build “firewalls” around their company assets to protect against the liability claims that this case will surely bring.

If you are afraid that you could be a target for lawsuits and want to explore what steps can be taken to “level the playing field” against these kinds of claims, we might be able to help. Please call us for a complimentary consultation.

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