THE PERILS OF EMPLOYEE HOLIDAY PARTIES

 It is that time of year again when office holiday parties are frequent, and alcoholic beverages are often served at these employer-sponsored events. The question is: if someone in attendance is injured because of an accident arising during or even after the event, is the employer liable? A number of cases have – not surprisingly – addressed these sort of issues regarding claims against employers for injuries arising from such holiday or other employer-sponsored events. 

For example, in Purton v. Marriott Int’l, Inc., 218 Cal. App. 4th 499 (2013), the plaintiffs sought to hold a hotel employer liable for the vehicular homicide committed by one of its employees following a company holiday party. 

In Purton, the hotel employer asked the trial court to dismiss the civil case on the basis that the employee was “not acting within the scope of his employment” at the time of the fatal accident, which occurred after the employee had arrived home from the holiday party and then got behind the wheel again. The appellate court disagreed, stating: “if a commercial enterprise chooses to allow its employees to consume alcoholic beverages for the benefit of the enterprise, fairness requires that the enterprise should bear the burden of injuries proximately caused by the employees.” Under Purton, an employer may be found liable for its employee’s torts so long as the proximate cause of the injury (here, alcohol consumption) occurred within the scope of employment, even if the employee had already arrived home safely from the employer’s party or the injury otherwise occurred when the employee was no longer acting within the scope of employment. 

Earlier California cases have also addressed issues relating to employer-sponsored events. 

For instance, in Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co., 120 Cal.App.3d 157 (1981), an employer held a holiday party at its manufacturing plant during business hours where large quantities of alcohol were served. Following the party, one of its employees drove home intoxicated and was involved in an auto accident that killed one person and injured two others. The suit was brought against the employer based upon vicarious liability. The court found that although there is generally no “social host” liability under California law, a sufficient connection existed between the employer’s Christmas party and the employee’s negligent act to justify holding the employer financially responsible for the injuries occasioned by the employee’s accident. In making its decision, the court noted that the party was held at work, during work hours, and that the employee in question was paid to attend and encouraged to drink heavily. 

In Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises, Inc., 199 Cal.App.4th 1336 (2011), a female employee sued her employer alleging sexual harassment arising partly out of incidents at two separate employer-sponsored Christmas parties. First, at an employer-sponsored Christmas party in 2000 or 2001, a supervisor dressed up as Santa Claus and asked three female employees to sit on his lap while he asked personal questions about their love lives. Then, at an employer-

sponsored Christmas party in 2002 or 2003, the employer’s chief executive officer wore a red and white Santa hat with derogatory language written across the brow. The employee later sued for sexual harassment based on gender. The jury returned a $250,000 verdict in favor of the employee on her sexual harassment claims. While the verdict was later overturned based upon the court’s finding that the evidence submitted was insufficient to establish that the employee was subjected to “severe or pervasive” harassment, the employer – and possibly its insurer – undoubtedly had already spent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars defending the lawsuit. 

There is no way to completely insulate a company from liability arising out of employer-sponsored holiday parties, other than a decision not to hold a holiday party all together. Some law firms have suggested certain steps that a company can take to limit such liability. (See http://www.brownlawgroup.com/newsletter-archives/not-so-happy-holidays/. See also, “Is an Employer liable for Employee injuries at a Company Retreat?” https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/is-an-employer-liable-for-employee-injuries-at-a-company-retreat; http://www.brownlawgroup.com/newsletter-archives/not-so-happy-holidays/.) 

It is also important to remember that workers’ compensation laws may provide 

the exclusive remedy for such injuries and may bar an employee’s separate claims against an employer, but not third parties. (See https://www.newlinlaw.com/workplace-injuries-faqs/activities-covered-under-workers-compensation/.) The workers’ compensation system, however, does not apply to claims against a party-sponsoring employer that are brought by non-employee party guests. 

If you or someone you know is injured as a result of a holiday party, give us a call to discuss the remedies that may be available. Remember: with KCEH, there are no gimmicks or 1-800 numbers – when you call us, you talk to us.