Justice

‘Our neighbour’s keeper’

Julian Beltrame February 19 2001
Justice

‘Our neighbour’s keeper’

Julian Beltrame February 19 2001

‘Our neighbour’s keeper’

Justice

Julian Beltrame

For employers who like to throw the occasional office bash, it was sobering news. Last week, an Ontario judge ordered a Barrie real estate company to pay former receptionist Linda Leigh Hunt $312,174 in damages after she suffered serious injuries while driving home drunk from an office wine-and-cheese party. The evidence was far from straightforward. Although there was testimony that she drank liberally during the 1994 Christmas party in the offices of Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc., the accident on a snow-covered road did not occur until three hours later. In between, she and colleagues had visited a local bar where she had more drinks. “This is really scary,” said Don Jerry, owner of the Barrie brokerage. “At what point do we stop being our neighbours keeper?”

Certainly at a point beyond the employer’s doorstep, said Justice Claire Marchand in his 20-page decision. The Ontario Superior Court judge found that while Hunt was 75-per-cent accountable for her injuries—including brain damage that left her with partial amnesia and unable to work frill time— her employer and the bar bore the rest of the responsibility. (Sutton Group will have to pay the full amount because P J.’s Pub is insolvent.) That responsibility, said Marchand, rests on the legal concept of “master and servant” and the employer’s obligations when introducing an unsafe element into the workplace, in this case alcohol. “It extends ... to [making] sure that she would not enter into such a state of intoxication while on his premises and on duty so as to interfere with her ability to safely drive home,” he wrote.

That reasoning drew swift criticism in newspaper editorials, on letters pages

and on call-in radio programs. Jerry said he has received hundreds of outraged e-mails and phone calls urging him to appeal, which his insurance company is considering. Ron Veilleux, president of the Ottawa lobby and communications firm GPC International, says the deci-

Should a boss pay for a worker injured after drinking at work?

sion will make employers rethink Christmas party plans. Veilleux says company officers carefully monitor revellers at their own annual bash for up to 1,000 guests, but he is now considering an alternative kind of celebration, perhaps a charity event. “We’ll have to do something,” he says.

But legal experts say the Hunt case breaks no new ground. Other employers have been found partially liable in

accidents involving workers who drank on the job. Robert Solomon, a law professor and national legal director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says there have also been more than 100 cases in Canada in which tavern owners have been found liable for serving intoxicated patrons. “The law says it’s illegal to serve alcohol to people who are intoxicated,” says Solomon. “It’s that simple.” But how far can the principle be taken? Solomon believes a host at a private home party could be found partially liable for allowing an obviously intoxicated guest to ! drive home. Hunt’s lawyer, Roger S Oatley, says that may not always I be the case. A private host does § not have the requisite control and I responsibility towards guests that H are at the heart of the employeremployee relationship, he argues. Critics of the award, he adds, fail to grasp that, because alcohol impairs judgment, it is up to the provider of that alcohol to ensure the consumer does not endanger himself or others.

For the moment, Jerry is uncertain whether he’ll hold a Christmas party this year. He believes the judge erred in accepting defence arguments that he did not monitor Hunt’s drinking. While he knew Hunt was inebriated at 4 p.m. that day—and offered to call her husband to pick her up—he says she had sobered up when she left at 6:30 p.m. Marchand, however, accepted evidence that Hunt had more than double the legal limit of alcohol in her blood when she left the office. For Oatley, the message is that employers must ensure that drunk employees do not get behind a wheel. “This is an important decision,” he says, “because it’s going to save lives.”

Do you think Linda Leigh Hunt’s employer was partly to blame? To comment,

www.macleans.ca