Purton v. Marriott International: New liability for alcohol at office functions?

A recent Fourth District court case has interesting implications for employers who choose to serve alcohol at holiday parties.

You may be familiar with the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. This means that an employer can be held liable for the actions of their employees in certain circumstances.

Michael Landri was a bartender employed by Marriott. Marriott threw a holiday party in the bar of their hotel for their employees. The party was not mandatory to attend. Mr. Landri did not work the day of the party, and had a beer and a shot of Jack Daniel’s at his home before being driven to the party. He brought along a 6-ounce flask that was filled “to some degree” with Jack Daniel’s, and recalls filling it at least once at the party. After about 3 hours, Mr. Landri recalls being driven home by another attendee. Once leaving the hotel, he did not consume any more alcohol. After about 20 minutes at home, Mr. Landri made the decision to drive an intoxicated co-worker home. Enroute, Mr. Landri struck and killed Dr. Purton, whose parents sued Marriott for wrongful death.

Marriott brought a motion for summary judgment, saying that Mr. Landri was not acting within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. The trial court granted the motion, and it was appealed to the appellate court, where it was overruled and remanded to the trial court.

It is important to note that this was not an appeal on the merits, but instead an appeal by the plaintiffs to have their chance for a trial. The court acknowledges that basically their job at this level was to ensure that there was no triable issue of fact, and that they were liberally construing the evidence in favor of the appealing party to make sure that there was no error in the lower court.

That being said, it is interesting to see how the court construed the facts. They said that it was reasonable that a trier of fact could find that Mr. Landri’s intoxication occurred at his employer’s party, and that this was within the scope of his employment. The court cited several other cases where employees were served alcohol by their employers, and it was held to be within the scope of their employment. The rule the court followed for determining if there was potentially respondeat superior liability in this case was articulated as the following:

“the activities that caused the employee to become an instrumentality of danger to others were undertaken with the employer’s permission and were of some benefit to the employer or, in the absence of proof of benefit, the activities constituted a customary incident of employment.”

It will be interesting to see how this case turns out. In the meantime, employers who choose to serve alcohol should be aware that there may be liability for doing so.

Read the whole case here: Purton v Marriott International Inc

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