Q: I own a medium-sized business. I like to have a year-end celebration with my staff at a restaurant, including wine. Do I have any liability if an employee gets into a car accident on the way home? Am I more liable if the event is held in the office versus a restaurant?
A: In general, if an office party is held at a restaurant, the owner of the restaurant may have liability under New York’s Dram Shop Act. If the party is held at the office, there may be liability on the employer if alcohol is served in excess to the guests, if the employer participated in or encouraged the driver in consuming the alcoholic beverages to the extent that he became intoxicated, or if the employer had any knowledge of that intoxication.
A defendant generally has no duty to control the conduct of third persons so as to prevent them from harming others, even where as a practical matter defendant can exercise such control. Certain relationships, however, may give rise to this duty. Under the doctrine of respondent superior, for example, an employer may be liable for acts of its employees in the course and scope of employment. An employee ordinarily is not acting in the course and scope of employment when traveling to and from work, so as to impose liability on the employer for negligent driving during these trips.
Practically speaking as long as the employer was not engaged in serving alcoholic beverages neither dispensed, nor monitored the consumption of alcohol, was not in the position of a bartender or even a host dispensing alcohol, who may deny the request of a patron or guest for another drink a credible argument can be made against liability.
New York Courts recognize the moral desirability that drinking be controlled and supervised. But courts have not created a new legal duty that would require employers to respond in damages, as an insurer, for plaintiff's injuries.
Of course, each situation is dependent on the specific facts presented.