Employer May Be Liable for Employee’s Drunk Driving Accident Following After-Work Happy Hour

By Rebecca Ok

On March 14, 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court considered whether the immunity granted to social hosts from suits for injuries sustained by patrons or guests after voluntarily consuming alcohol under ORS 471.565(1) also bars suit against an employer or supervisor for injuries sustained by an employee while intoxicated from after work drinks. The court held that ORS 471.565(1) does not bar suit against an employer or supervisor acting in their role as employer or supervisor, as distinguished from acting in the role of a social host. Schutz v. La Costita III, 364 Or 536 (2019).

The plaintiff, a newly hired receptionist, was invited by her supervisor to after work drinks with him and some other co-workers. Concerned that declining the invitation would hurt her prospects with her new employer, she agreed to go. During the course of the evening, her supervisor encouraged everyone to drink and teased one co-worker for trying to leave after having two beers. The supervisor purchased several drinks for plaintiff who became severely intoxicated. While driving home that evening, plaintiff was involved in a collision in which she sustained severe injuries resulting in quadriplegia.

The plaintiff brought suit against her employer and supervisor, as well as La Costita, the restaurant and bar that served her. The plaintiff alleged that her supervisor was negligent in organizing a work event knowing that excessive amounts of alcohol would be served to employees, and in creating the impression that advancement with the company depended on consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. The plaintiff alleged her employer was vicariously liable for her supervisor's negligence, and also negligent for allowing him to organize a work event where excessive amounts of alcohol would be served and failing to train him in "proper" methods of strengthening work relationships.

The trial court determined that La Costita was entitled to immunity from suit as a licensed server under ORS 471.565(1) and entered a limited judgment of dismissal in its favor. The trial court also granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiff's employer and supervisor determining that they, too, were entitled to immunity as social hosts under ORS 471.565(1). The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court's social host analysis but reversed based on the remedies clause in Oregon's Constitution. On review, the Oregon Supreme Court considered whether a defendant who is a server or social host is immune from liability only when alleged to be acting as a server or social host, or also when alleged to be acting in another role, such as an employer.

In answering that question, the court engaged in its familiar method of statutory interpretation first set out in PGE v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, 318 Or 606 (1993). The court concluded that the immunity granted by ORS 471.565(1) applies only to claims against servers or social hosts for their actions as servers or social hosts. It does not bar claims against an employer or supervisor for intentionally or negligently performing the role of employer or supervisor, even if they were also acting as a server or social host. The Supreme Court thus affirmed the ruling by the Court of Appeals but for a different reason that avoided the constitutional remedy clause section.

The practical result of this ruling is that Oregon employers must take precautions in connection with work events where alcohol will be served. Oregon employers should avoid work events where excessive amounts of alcohol will be served, eliminate practices that appear to link career advancement with excessive consumption of alcohol, and encourage alternative activities to strengthen work relationships. If employers provide or purchase alcohol for employees at social events, they should arrange for alternative transportation home.

This client update is prepared for the general information of our clients and friends. It should not be regarded as legal advice. If you have any questions regarding this update, or for more information about this topic, please contact any of the attorneys in our Labor & Employment Practice Group, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

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