One Drink Too Many

“What’s the worst that can happen if I serve alcohol at our company holiday party but offer cab service to and from each employee’s home?”

Your HR Survival Tip

We have usually advised clients to at least use designated drivers or cab service when providing alcohol at company parties to minimize the risks. However, that doesn’t mean you are risk-free.

Years ago there was a case (Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. (2013) 218 Cal. App. 4th 499) that made us offer a warning instead of advice because there is no risk-free way for a company to serve alcohol. Marriott held a company party for employees. They planned to control the drinking by allotting each employee only 2 drink tokens and then only serving wine and beer. However, it’s hard to plan for every possibility.

One of the employees (we’ll call him Sam) had a couple of drinks prior to the party and brought a flask with him and, sometime during the evening, a bartender refilled the flask. Sam became drunk but he successfully drove himself and a coworker to Sam’s house that night. A little while later, Sam left his house to drive his coworker home. While driving to his coworker’s house Sam hit another car, killing that driver. The driver’s parents filed a wrongful death case against the Marriott. The court decided Marriott’s responsibility ended when Sam originally arrived home safely. But the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, stating Sam became intoxicated during the scope of his employment (i.e., company-sponsored party) and that made the accident the Marriott’s responsibility.

There is a legal thing known as “social host” that, essentially, makes the host providing the alcohol responsible for any subsequent actions. The appeals court said since the party was intended to enhance morale and improve employee relations for the Marriott, the party was within the scope of Sam’s employment.

The issues in this case really came down to the fact that the timing of the accident mattered much less than the act that caused the injury, which was the company-sponsored party. Although we all dislike the thought of having to give up a few drinks while socializing with coworkers, the risks continue to rise so you may need to make some hard decisions or keep your fingers crossed that no one drinks too much.

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