Is firm liable for drunk employee's fatal accident?

A company celebration turned tragic for this Marriott hotel. How did it happen — and was the company responsible? 
Here are the details, from court papers:
In December 2009, the Marriott Del Mar Hotel held its annual holiday party as a “thank you” for its employees and management. Marriott didn’t require employees to attend the party.
The general manager and the assistant general manager of the hotel decided that each party attendee would receive two drink tickets, and they planned to serve only beer and wine.
Michael Landri worked as a bartender for the hotel, and though he didn’t work the day of the party, he did attend — after he drank a beer and a shot of “Jack Daniel’s” whiskey at home. Worse: Landri brought a flask full of whiskey to the party.
While at the party, a department head brought up a bottle of “Jack Daniel’s” from the hotel’s liquor supply. Landri filled up his flask at least once.
At the end of the night, Landri was either driven home or drove home himself. Once he got home safely, however, he decided to drive a co-worker home who’d become intoxicated at the party.
On that ride, Landri rear-ended the car of Jared Purton at 100 mph, killing Purton. Landri had a blood alcohol level of 0.16. He pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol and received a six-year prison sentence.

Who was responsible?

Purton’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Marriott, claiming that Landri’s intoxication came about as a result of his employment with Marriott:

Marriott held the party for its benefit, including to improve relations between employees, improve relations between it and employees, and increase the continuity of employment by providing a fringe benefit. As a bartender, Landri had an above average education regarding the effects of drinking alcohol. Landri became extremely intoxicated at the party. Although intoxicated, Landri was allowed to leave the Hotel and drive.

Marriott countered that it wasn’t responsible because Landri wasn’t acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. After all, the hotel argued, Landri made it home safely. Anything he did after that, they said, was outside of their responsibility.
The court sided with Purton’s family: ” … the party and drinking of alcoholic beverages benefited Marriott by improving morale and furthering employer-employee relations … [and] that Landri was acting within the scope of his employment while ingesting alcoholic beverages at the party.”
Notably, the court found that the fact that Landri had arrived home safely before driving drunk didn’t cut off Marriott’s liability.
The case is Purton v. Marriott International, Inc. 

Don’t let it happen to your company

Though this is an extreme case, you clearly don’t want your employee parties to turn out the same way.
So what’s the best way to avoid over-imbibing employees from potentially leaving your firm liable? Here are five tips:

  • Invite the spouses. Significant others reduce the risk of significantly regrettable behavior. Extra bonus: Inviting loved ones usually means there’s a driver to get the staff member home safely if he or she drinks a little too much.
  • Close the open bar. Freely flowing booze means double trouble. Make it a cash bar to keep everything under control.
  • Hire a professional … bartender, that is. A pro at the bar knows when to cut folks off. And don’t rely on supervisors to chaperone the party. Sure, they should keep an eye on things, but they shouldn’t have to cut staff off the sauce.
  • Cut down on after-parties. Advise supervisors not to attend after-hours shindigs – who knows what stories might be floating around by Monday?
  • Make sure no one drives tipsy. Set up a free taxi service for any employee who might be too drunk to drive. Or you might enlist some designated drivers from among the staff.