I don’t think many would quarrel with the notion that employers should be on the hook for injuries their workers cause in the course and scope of their employment. The Latin term for this principle is respondeat superior, literally “let the master answer.” But sometimes courts stretch the concept beyond its logical limits.
Take the July 31, 2013 California Appellate Court decision in Purton v. Marriott Int’l. A bartender goes to the hotel’s employee holiday party. The only drinks served at the party are beer and wine. Employees each get two drink tickets. But the bartender starts drinking before the party and sneaks in a flask with a popular Tennessee whiskey, which he manages to refill at the party. It sounds like someone else drove him home and he arrived safely. But later he decided to get behind the wheel and caused an accident in which he killed a young doctor. (Just for the record, even callous defense attorneys like myself believe that killing anyone is bad. But from a strictly financial perspective, killing someone with huge future earning potential is in some ways more bad.)
The bartender goes to prison and the doctors parents sue Marriott. The superior court grants summary judgment for Marriott saying that its involvement in the death was too remote. But the court of appeal reversed. It found that Marriott could be legally responsible for this death.
What’s the takeaway here? Is it that you shouldn’t let employees drink too much and if they break the rules you have to not only get them home safely but sit on them there until they’re sober? Or is it that a court saw a tragedy and a deep pocket and an opportunity to spread the wealth?