Company Parties and Alcohol: Employer Liability for People Injured by Intoxicated Employees

By: Melissa D. Carter, Attorney at Law

While numerous laws and criminal sanctions have been enacted to deter those who drive while intoxicated, deterrence does not compensate those who suffer bodily harm or property damage because of a drunk driver.  Drunk driving is not season; it remains a major problem 365 days a year.

What happens to an innocent motorist or pedestrian who is seriously injured by a drunk driver, facing mounting medical bills, possible disabilities and perhaps an inability to work?  The law has traditionally looked for accountability from those who drink and drive.  If the driver was over served at a drinking establishment, the injured person may have a right of recovery against the bar.[1] But, what if the driver got intoxicated at a private party, sanctioned and hosted by his or her employer?  This article explores the responsibility of the employer (referred to in a legal claim as the “quasi- commercial host”) to people injured by its intoxicated employees, and how courts have begun to recognize other parties in the chain of events leading to an injury caused by an intoxicated driver who may be accountable as well.

In our experience, we have found that a drunk driver who seriously injures or causes the wrongful death of another person after leaving a company function will not have adequate insurance under his or her personal automobile liability policy to cover the injuries and related damages to the injured person, or to the surviving family members.  As a result, our investigation looks closely at other potential responsible parties that contributed to the traumatic incident, and this includes the employer’s role and the employer’s insurance coverage.  Consider the following scenario:

  1. A young man attends a company holiday party at the request of his supervisor.  He perceives attendance as mandatory, based on an email sent by the supervisor from company’s computers.  Upon arrival, he is greeted by his supervisor and handed a drink.  There is also an open self-service bar with beer, wine and hard alcohol.
  2. The young man consumes several drinks along with his co-workers as the night rolls on.  He begins to slur his speech and stumbles somewhat as he makes his way through the room.  As the party winds down, the young man stumbles out the door, apparently impaired from the alcohol he consumed.
  3. The young man gets into his car and, minutes later, crashes into a motorist stopped at a stop light.

In this situation, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that, if the company party was beneficial to the employer, the employee’s presence was requested, and the employee consumed the alcohol at the company function, then the employer’s insurance is involved.[2]  This, in turn, imposes a duty of the employer to take reasonable steps to ensure that the employee is not “apparently intoxicated;” or, impaired, based on reasonable observation.[3]

Whether or not someone is apparently intoxicated “is to be judged by that person’s appearance at the time the intoxicating liquor is furnished to the person.”[4]  In years past, the courts have interpreted “apparently intoxicated” to mean “obviously” intoxicated.[5]  Recognizing the difficult evidentiary burdens injured parties had in establishing that the intoxicated person was “obviously” drunk when served, the Court revised the standard to “apparently” intoxicated.[6]

While it is certainly permissible for an employer to treat employees to celebrations, appreciation dinners and holiday parties, it is prudent for the employer to take steps to prevent over-service of alcohol to its employees.  In practice, this means that an employer must ensure that employees aren’t consuming unreasonably large amounts of alcohol, slurring speech, behaving inappropriately or otherwise acting and appearing intoxicated when they will be operating a motor vehicle.

In sum, an injured person should explore any potential avenue of recovery if injured by a drunk driver.  If the driver was in fact leaving a company-sponsored party, making a claim for damages against the company for over serving the employee can be difficult to investigate and prove.  Doing so requires the assistance of knowledgeable and highly skilled, experienced plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys in the areas of negligence and traumatic personal injuries.  The attorneys at Adler Giersch stand ready to assist you, your colleagues and family in these types of matters through their offices in Seattle, Bellevue, Everett and Kent.

 



[1] Estate of Kelly, 127 Wn.2d 31, 37, 896 P.2d 1245 (1995).

[2] Dickson v. Edwards, 105 Wn.2d 457, 716 P.2d 814 (1986).

[3] See Faust v. Albertson, 167 Wn.2d 531, 539-41, 222 P.3d 1208 (2009).

[4] Christen v. Lee, 113 Wn.2d 479, 588, 780 P.2d 1307 (1989); Purchase v. Meyer, 108 Wn.2d 220, 225-26, 737 P.2d 661 (1987).

[5] Estate of Kelly, 127 Wn.2d 31, 896 P.2d 1245 (1995).

[6] Faust v. Albertson, Id.