Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 499 greatly expanded the vicarious liability of an employer for negligence of an employee who becomes intoxicated at an employer-sponsored party. The case is a cautionary tale for all employers who may give parties for their staffs this upcoming holiday season.
California law immunizes social hosts who provide alcoholic beverages from civil liability for merely furnishing alcohol, except for furnishing alcohol to a minor (Bus. & Prof. Code, §25602; Civ. Code, §1714.). Other than those exceptions, under the Anti- Dram Shop statutes, an employer cannot be sued for its negligence in over-serving someone at an office party who gets drunk and then causes an accident.
However, this does not immunize the employer for vicarious liability under a respondeat superior theory for accidents caused by an employee who becomes intoxicated at an employer-sponsored office party.
In Purton, an employee consumed alcoholic beverages at the annual holiday party sponsored by his employer, Marriott. Even though only beer and wine was to be served and each attendee was limited to two drink tickets, the employee brought a flask of whiskey with him and the bartender refilled the flask from a Marriott hotel’s liquor supply. The employee became intoxicated. The employee arrived home safely, but then left to drive a coworker home. During that drive, he struck another car, killing a motorist. Plaintiffs, the parents of the motorist, filed a wrongful death action against the employer, Marriott. The trial court granted Marriott’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the employer’s potential liability under the doctrine of respondeat superior ended when the employee arrived home.
The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, concluding that 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.
The decision clarifies four major issues:
First, Purton clarified that the employer is not immunized from liability under the “social host” statutes (Civ. Code, §1714 or Bus. and Prof. Code, §25602) because the liability is not based on furnishing alcohol but on vicarious liability for the employee’s negligence.
Second, Purton reasoned that alcohol consumption at an employer-sponsored party falls within scope of employment. Christmas party drinking of alcoholic beverages benefitted Marriott by improving employee morale and furthering employer employee relations. Thus, a trier of fact could conclude that the alcohol consumption occurred within the scope of employment.
Third, Purton determined that 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 employment.
Fourth, Purton held that no legal justification exists for terminating the employer’s liability as a matter of law simply because the employee arrived home safely from the employer-hosted party. In holding it irrelevant that the employee was no longer acting in the scope of his employment, Purton expanded the exception to the “going and coming” rule.
The “going and coming” rule is a rule of non-liability of an employer for the negligent acts of its employees while going and coming to work. Its rationale is that, with certain exceptions, an employee is not deemed to be acting within the scope of employment while traveling to and from the workplace. Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co. (1981) 120 Cal. App.3d 157 held that when an employee’s intoxication occurred at a party and the employee’s attendance at the party and intoxication occurred within the scope of his employment, it was foreseeable the employee would attempt to drive home while still intoxicated and might have an accident. (Id. at p. 165.) The Harris court disregarded whether the employee’s trip may have fallen within an exception to the going and coming rule, stating that “the pivotal consideration was not whether an extra trip was required to attend the banquet, but whether there was a sufficient business relationship between the employment and the banquet at which the defendant became intoxicated to hold the employer liable for the employee’s negligent driving.” (Ibid.)
Purton took this exception a step further by holding that the vicarious liability does not end when the employee returns home from the party, because a jury could find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the intoxicated employee return home, get in his or her car again, and cause an accident. It explained that vicarious liability is not based on when the injury occurred, but on the act that caused the injury, i.e. the employer sponsored party.
Conclusion: Purton is significant because it expands an employer’s potential liability for employees’ actions resulting from alcohol consumption at company-sponsored events. The court noted that Marriott could have reduced its risk of liability by having a policy against smuggled alcohol, enforcing its drink ticket policy, serving drinks for a limited time, or prohibiting alcohol altogether. However, if a company fails to implement or enforce such policies and procedures during the company-sponsored event, a jury may find the employer liable for an accident caused by an intoxicated employee even after the party is over the employee has returned home.
Gabriele M. Lashly is a certified appellate specialist. She practices at Slaughter & Reagan LLP in Ventura.