Weekly Law Resume - August 22, 2013: Torts – Employer Liability for Employee Off-Duty Accident

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Alan Purton, et al. v. Marriott International, Inc., et al.
Court of Appeal, Fourth District (July 31, 2013)

The limits of the concept of respondeat superior have once again been redefined, courtesy of the landmark decision by the Court of Appeal in Purton v. Marriott Int’l, Inc. Courts have long embraced the notion of an employer being held liable for the actions of its employees (including accidents) that occur within the course and scope of employment. Purton broadens that concept even further, examining when and where the “cause” (such as intoxication) of an employee’s off-duty accident occurred.

Marriott International, Inc. employed Michael Landri (“Landri”) as a bartender at the Marriott Del Mar Hotel (the “Hotel”). The Hotel held a holiday party in 2009 for its employees, and Landri attended. Landri drank a beer and a shot of whiskey prior to attending the party, and took a five-ounce flask of whiskey with him to the party. The Hotel served only beer and wine at the party, and offered each employee two drink tickets. Landri drank his own whiskey, and obtained even more whiskey from the Hotel from the bartender working at the party.

Landri went home after the party. However, at some point after going home, he drove his vehicle and struck a young doctor named Jared Purton, killing him. Landri was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and went to prison. Dr. Purton’s parents sued Marriott for wrongful death, and the trial court granted summary judgment for the employer because Landri was not acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time the accident occurred. Dr. Purton’s parents appealed.

The Court of Appeal, relying on the California Supreme Court’s holding in McCarty v. Workmen’s Comp. Appeals Bd., 12 Cal.3d 677, 681-82 (Cal. 1974), emphasized that “…employee social and recreational activity on the company premises, endorsed with the express or implied permission of the employer, falls within the course of employment if the activity was conceivably of some benefit to the employer or otherwise was a customary incident of the employment relationship.”

An exception to an employer’s vicarious liability is the “going and coming” rule, which precludes liability for torts committed by the employee while going or coming to the workplace. However, McCarty held that the “going and coming” rule does not apply where the employee became intoxicated at the workplace. The Court in McCarty emphasized the fact that the proximate cause of the injury was the intoxication, thus extending the employer’s liability to encompass the employee’s accident while intoxicated.

Applying McCarty, the Court of Appeal in Purton found that there was sufficient evidence that Landri was acting within the course and scope of employment when he became intoxicated. The Court held that the holiday party was a “thank you” to the Hotel’s employees, and the party’s purpose was a “celebration, employee appreciation, holiday spirit, and team building.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, a trier of fact could find that Landri was within the scope of his employment when he became intoxicated at the Hotel’s holiday party.

The Hotel argued that once Landri went home after the party, the Hotel no longer had control over his actions. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, honing in on the notion that the employer “created the risk of harm at its party by allowing an employee to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication.” The Court’s response to the Hotel suggested that an employer could limit the smuggling of alcohol at its holiday party, or eliminate alcohol consumption altogether. The Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment, remanding the case for further proceedings.

COMMENT

Purton places the question of whether an employee’s conduct was within the course and scope of his/her employment as one of fact, best decided by a jury. Employers who serve alcohol at events deemed for the benefit of “employee appreciation” should minimize their risks by strictly limiting alcohol consumption, as an employee’s conduct while intoxicated can be imputed to an employer, regardless of whether the employee was considered “off-duty” when the conduct occurred.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/D060475.PDF