Labor & Employment Law Daily Employer not immune from claim employee’s drunken injuries caused by pressure to attend work event with excessive alcohol
Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Employer not immune from claim employee’s drunken injuries caused by pressure to attend work event with excessive alcohol

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Oregon’s highest court held that while a statute immunized “social hosts” from actions related to their roles as “hosts,” they could face liability for alleged tortious acts in another role, such as property owner or employer.

Oregon’s social host statute did not immunize an employer and supervisor from a negligence suit by an employee injured in an auto accident after allegedly being pressured to attend a work gathering where she was encouraged to become overly intoxicated, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled, reversing summary judgment against her. By including a clause providing that immunity did not apply to claims based on injuries “caused by negligent or intentional acts other than the service of alcoholic beverages to a visibly intoxicated patron or guest,” the legislature did not intend to bar all claims made by guests who became intoxicated; rather the statute was only intended to preclude claims against social hosts for actions taken in their roles as such. Here, the alleged negligent acts weren’t related to the serving of alcoholic beverages, but involved the defendants’ prior actions, such as allowing the owner’s son to arrange an outing where excessive alcohol would be consumed (Shutz v. La Costita III, Inc., March 14, 2019, Walters, C.).

Pressured to go out for drinks. The employee worked as a receptionist at the construction firm. During her three months on the job, she had declined four to five invitations by her supervisor (the owner’s son) to join him and other coworkers for drinks after work. She nevertheless felt pressured to accept an invitation so that she would advance in the firm.

Seriously injured. On the evening of her accident, the employee agreed to leave work early and join her supervisor and coworkers at a nearby restaurant and bar. The manager encouraged the coworkers to drink at the gathering, teasing another coworker for attempting to leave after only two beers. After becoming severely intoxicated, the employee drove the wrong way down the interstate and was severely injured in an auto accident.

Sues for negligence. She filed this negligence suit against the restaurant, the supervisor, and the employer. The trial court dismissed her claim against the restaurant under the social host statute and she continued to pursue her claims against the employer and supervisor. Among other things, she alleged they were negligent in organizing the drinking event, pressuring her to attend despite her prior refusals, creating the impression that her advancement depended on the supervisor’s approval, and failing to warn her that she would be expected to consume excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages.

The trial court granted summary judgment against her, finding that these defendants were also entitled to immunity under the social host statute. The appeals court agreed, but reversed on the ground that the law was unconstitutional.

Is immunity limited? The employee argued that the statute only provided immunity for acts involving the purchase or service of alcohol to the visibly intoxicated, while permitting all other negligence claims. Thus, the Oregon Supreme Court framed the issue as whether “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 property owner or employer.” To discern the intent of the statute, the court underwent an exhaustive review of its text, the context, and its legislative history.

Text suggests liability for non-serving acts. The first sentence of the statute provides that a patron or guest who voluntarily consumes alcohol cannot bring an action against servers or social hosts “serving” alcoholic beverages,” even if they were served while visibly intoxicated. Providing additional information about the legislature’s intent, the first clause of the statute’s second sentence provides that the provision’s immunity will “apply only to” claims for relief based on injuries “caused by intoxication.” Significantly, the second clause provides that immunity does not apply to claims for relief based on injuries “caused by negligent or intentional acts other than the service of alcoholic beverages to a visibly intoxicated patron or guest.”

The employee argued that immunity did not extend to claims where the alleged injuries of an intoxicated individual were alleged to be caused by tortious acts other than the service of alcoholic beverages. The defendants, on the other hand, argued that the statute extended immunity to all claims in which a plaintiff’s intoxication causes her injury, including where she alleges that the social host committed a tortious act “other than the service of alcoholic beverages.” Finding the employee’s interpretation most plausible, the supreme court held that, considered as a whole, the text of the statute suggested that it provided immunity for claims against servers and social hosts only for their actions as servers or social hosts.

Context and legislative history. The statute’s context and legislative history further supported this interpretation. This included an examination of the Oregon case which led the legislature to adopt the statute, Fulmer v. Timber Inn Restaurant, in which the state supreme court had held that a bar patron who fell down stairs and was seriously injured after being overserved while visibly intoxicated could sue the bar for its negligence in both: (1) continuing to serve him alcohol after he became visibly intoxicated; and (2) failing to make its premises reasonably safe.

The social host statute was enacted in response, which appeared not to have been intended to bar all claims made by patrons or guests who became intoxicated. Among other things, the court considered the original draft, an amendment, and statements by the Oregon Restaurant Association, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, and certain legislators. This backdrop showed that the statute was intended to preclude claims against servers and social hosts for actions taken in their roles as such, but not for their intentional or negligent acts in other roles.

Therefore, while the employer and supervisor were immune from liability for their conduct while serving as social hosts, they were not immune from the employee’s claims asserting that they acted intentionally or negligently in performing their roles as employer and supervisor. However, the court emphasized that it was not deciding whether her claims against them were legally cognizable. And if they were, she still needed to prove that they acted tortiously and that their actions were a cause of her injuries. However, while she might not ultimately prove their liability or obtain damages, they were not statutorily immune from her lawsuit.

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