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On the hook: liquor at an employer-sanctioned holiday patty gets out of hand, with fatal results.

Under the doctrine of "respondeat superior" ("let the master respond"), an employer may be held vicariously liable for the torts committed by an employee within the scope of employment. But what happens when the tort occurs after the employee arrives safely home--can the employer still be held liable?

Recently, in Purton v. Marriott International, the California Court of Appeal held that an employer may be found liable for its employee's torts as long as the proximate cause of the injury occurred within the scope of employment. It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employee's negligent conduct occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting with me scope of his employment. The court found no legal justification for terminating the employer's liability as a matter of law simply because the employee had arrived home safely from an employer-hosted party.

In Purton, the San Diego Marriott hotel held its annual holiday party as a "thank you" for its employees. Management had planned on serving only beer and wine, and each attendee would receive two drink tickets. However, once the party got under way, hard liquor was served as well and the drink limit was not enforced. One of the hotel employees, Michael Landri, became intoxicated. At the end of the party, Landri and several other employees were driven back to his house. Landri did not consume any alcohol after leaving the party.

Twenty minutes later, Landri decided to drive home an intoxicated coworker. Driving more than 100 miles per hour, Landri rear-ended a vehicle and killed its driver, Dr. Jared Purton. Following the accident, Landri's blood alcohol level was. 16, twice the legal limit in California.He pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence and received a six-year prison sentence.

The victim's family sued Landri and Marriott for wrongful death. The trial court entered judgment for Marriott, finding that at the time of the accident, Landri was not acting within the scope of his employment.

Purton's family appealed, arguing that Landri's intoxication arose within the scope of employment; accordingly, Marriott's respondeat superior liability followed the risk created by his intoxication. Marriott argued Landri was outside the scope of his employment when the accident occurred; Landri's purpose for leaving his home was unrelated to his work. Thus, any liability it faced tinder respondeat superior ended when Landri arrived home safely after the party.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, reasoning that a jury could reasonably find that Landri acted negligently by becoming intoxicated at the party; that this act was within the scope of his employment; and proximately caused the accident which resulted in Purton's death. The court found it sufficient that the alcohol consumption occurred within the scope of employment; it was not necessary for the accident itself to occur while the employee was acting within the scope of his employment. Accordingly, the employer's potential liability continued until the risk that was created within the scope of the employee's employment dissipates--that is, until the employee was no longer intoxicated.

The court clearly had no sympathy for Marriott, stating that it created the risk of harm at its party by allowing an employee to become intoxicated.

Alternatively, Marriott could have eliminated the risk altogether by forbidding alcohol.

Audio:

Listen to an interview with Lissa A. Martinez at www.bestreview.com/audio

Best's Review columnist Lissa A. Martinez is an attorney with DarrasLaw, in Ontario, Calif. She is a plaintiff's lawyer representing disabled insureds and can be reached at lmartinez@darraslaw.com
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Title Annotation:Insight
Author:Martinez, Lissa A.
Publication:Best's Review
Date:Mar 1, 2014
Words:583
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