A New York appellate court recently ruled that a cancer treatment center wasn’t liable for the death of its 48-year-old employee who became extremely intoxicated at an annual department holiday party. The case serves as a sobering reminder, however, of the human consequences of a holiday event gone wrong. The party was organized by department executives, but was held off site and wasn’t officially sponsored or paid for by the company. The employee, a security guard supervisor, was nearly unconscious by the end of the alcohol-fueled festivities. It took three coworkers to haul the 260-pound man into the back seat of his wife’s Honda CRV. She drove him home, parked the car, checked on him approximately 40 minutes later, and found him dead of asphyxiation, wedged on the floor of the back seat. Four hours after his last drink, his blood alcohol level was 0.28. He left behind not only his wife but also infant twin daughters. His wife sued the company and the department executives. Although a local judge initially ruled the case against the company should go to trial, an appellate court later ruled the company wasn’t responsible for the actions of its employees at the party (Gillern v. Mahoney, NY App, Oct. 2017).
Tips: The single most important lesson from this sad situation is that if someone attending a company event (whether officially sanctioned or not) is drunk to the point of unconsciousness, call an ambulance. Even better, take steps to ensure drinking doesn’t get out of control in the first place. Set limits on the number of drinks per guest, and hire licensed bartenders who are trained to stop serving alcohol if a guest becomes intoxicated. Serve protein-rich, non-salty food, and stop providing alcohol an hour before the event ends. Consider offering free cab rides home. If an intoxicated employee insists on driving, call the police. For additional ideas to reduce legal exposure at company-sponsored events, see our Legal Guide, “Company Social Events and Liability”. There are plenty of ways to get in the holiday spirit while keeping employees safe. Best wishes to you and yours from Vigilant!