I wrote last month about some of the legal issues facing private social hosts with regard to liability for the actions of a drunken party guest. While the California legislature has largely foreclosed direct legal action against private social hosts, with the exception of underage drinkers, the same protections may not exist for corporations and other entities.
Purton v. Marriott
To better understand why, let’s take a quick look at the facts of Purton v. Marriott International. In late December of 2009, Marriott, Del Mar hosted a Christmas party as a “Thank You” to its employees. An open bar was provided. Officially, only two drink tickets where available to each guest; however, at some point during the evening the bartender, who was a high-ranking Hotel employee, ordered up a bottle of Jack from the Hotel’s supply. Landri, who had started the night of partying with a beer and a shot of Jack Daniels before ever leaving his home, brought a private flask with him to the party. In addition to the drink tickets he was given, he also refilled his flask from the Hotel’s bottle of Jack at least once. After the party, Landri was driven home by another guest. He arrived safely, but within a few minutes left again in his own car to drive another intoxicated employee home, crashing into and killing a local doctor along the way. At the time of the accident, Landri’s blood alcohol content was .16, double the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol and received a six-year prison sentence.
This summer, the California Court of Appeals for the 4th District determined that Marriott could be held liable to Dr. Purton’s parents for wrongful death based on these facts. The court explained that “an employer may be held liable for its employee’s torts as long as the proximate cause of the injury (the consumption of alcohol) occurred within the scope of employment.” Dismissing arguments that Landri had already left the party at the time of the accident, and thus was not acting in the course of employment, the court argued that Marriott’s party was very much within the scope of employment for Landri. The company threw the event as an employee incentive, the company provided the alcohol, and the company negligently allowed its two drink policy to go unenforced, continuing to serve alcohol to an intoxicated employee and then allowing that employee to drive another person home.
To What Extent?
However, while the extension of liability in the Purton case is fairly clear as a matter of equity, future cases may not be as well defined. Where corporations derive a direct benefit from their social host activities, sending drunk drivers into local communities as a consequence of corporate events, liability should be fairly easy to establish after Purton. Where the connection between the accident and the corporate activity is more tenuous, however, the outcome may well be different.
A Win for Plaintiffs
While courts continue to sort out the details of corporate social host liability, the Purton ruling is a win for injured plaintiffs. The possibility of pursuing legal options against an event sponsor for injuries resulting from the actions of drunken company employees potentially provides plaintiffs with a valuable avenue for recovery. Plaintiff’s attorneys would be well advised to look carefully at social host liability when handling California drunken driving cases after Purton. If you have been injured by a drunk driver, contact Orange County, California personal injury attorney Don Sjaarda at 714 963-8216 for a no-obligation consultation.