A recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice says that an employer’s duty to protect its employees from harming themselves and others applies to employer-sponsored social events.1
Hunt v. Sutton Group: The Facts
Ms. Hunt was an employee of Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. (hereinafter “Sutton”). In December of 1994, Ms. Hunt attended an office party held at her employer’s place of business during working hours. While attending the party, Ms. Hunt would regularly answer the telephone and she was expected to clean up after the guests had gone home. During the party, Ms. Hunt also consumed a significant amount of alcohol from the open, unsupervised bar supplied by her employer; the Trial Judge found that when she left the party later that evening, Ms. Hunt’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
After leaving the party, Ms. Hunt, along with five other individuals from the party, went to a local Pub. During their one and one-half hours stay at the Pub, the Trial Judge concluded Ms. Hunt consumed an additional two drinks.
On her way home from the Pub, Ms. Hunt’s car slid into the path of oncoming traffic. She suffered severe injuries. Her damages were assessed at one and a quarter million dollars.
Ms. Hunt sued both her employer and the Pub for negligence.
The Issues At Trial
The following inquiries were among the issues before the Trial Judge:
- Did the defendant Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc. as an employer owe a duty to the plaintiff as an employee to safeguard her from harm.
- If such a duty existed, what standard of care was required and was the standard met.
The Duty of Care Between Ms. Hunt and Sutton:
In his reasons, the Trial Judge was clear that Ms. Hunt’s claim against Sutton was strictly based on the duty of care an employer owes an employee; this was not a social host-type case. Sutton conceded it owed a duty to keep the place of employment safe. However, it took the position that this duty does not include the requirement that employers have to supervise the drinking habits of their employees. The Trial Judge disagreed when he observed:
…I find that the defendant Sutton, as the plaintiff’s employer, did therefore owe a duty to the plaintiff, as its employee to safeguard her from harm. This duty to safeguard her from harm extended beyond the simple duty while she was on his premises. It extended to a duty to make 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 afterwards.2
In establishing this duty of care, the Trial Judge referred to the decision of John v. Flynn.3In John v. Flynn, Mr. Flynn’s employer was aware of a chronic problem with a small group of employees who consumed alcohol in cars in the company parking lot during work breaks. Moreover, the employer had actual knowledge of Mr. Flynn’s membership in this group and his longstanding alcoholism.
One day, after work, Mr. Flynn drove home inebriated. At home, Mr. Flynn consumed more alcohol and then set out once again in his vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Flynn was involved in an accident.
In Hunt v. Sutton Group, the Trial Judge concluded the fact that Ms. Hunt left her place of employment and went to a Pub where she continued drinking, did not discharge her employer from its duty to ensure she return home safely. In making this conclusion, the Trial Judge relied on the following excerpt from John v. Flynn:
A break in the line of causation is subject to the qualification that if the intervening act is such that it might reasonably have been foreseen as anticipated, as a natural and probable result of the original negligence, then the original negligence will be regarded as an approximate cause of the injury, notwithstanding the intervening event.4
The fact that Ms. Hunt and her group stopped at a Pub after leaving the party did not absolve Sutton from liability; according to the Court, Sutton should have reasonably foreseen or anticipated this result.
The Required Standard of Care:
In confirming employers have a duty to safeguard their employees from harm, the Court concluded positive steps must be taken to ensure that this duty is properly discharged. A general offer of free taxi rides for employees is insufficient, according to the Court, to discharge the duty owed by employers to their employees. In Ms. Hunt’s case, it was not enough the employer offered to call her husband to come and take her home. It was also not enough for the employer to ask Ms. Hunt if she felt she could drive, because alcohol impairs judgment.
In concluding Sutton failed to properly discharge its duty, the Trial Judge observed:
I find that had her employer insisted on her leaving the keys at the office or on her taking a cab home at his expense, if indeed he was prepared to do so, would have resulted in the plaintiff having no other alternative but to accept. Furthermore, he could have easily phoned her husband to come and pick her up. He could even have called the police if need be. These were only some of the avenues which he failed to pursue, especially considering the very bad weather conditions at the time in question.5
The Outcome of Hunt v. Sutton Group:
The Court ordered Sutton to pay Ms. Hunt $300,000 in damages. Her damages were significantly reduced from the original calculation of one and a quarter million dollars since she was found to be contributorily negligent. Sutton was responsible for all of the judgment because the Pub was bankrupt.
The law is now well settled that employers may be liable for harm caused when employees have been drinking at the workplace or in connection with work. The decision of Hunt v. Sutton Group confirms employers must take positive steps to ensure their employees do not drive home intoxicated from work related events.
There are several steps employers can take to ensure their duty is discharged. These steps include:
- refrain from hosting an open bar;
- issue a limited number of drink tickets which cannot be transferred;
- close the bar early before employees begin to leave; and
- insist taxis be taken at the employer’s expense.
1Hunt (Litigation Guardian of) v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc.  O.J. No. 374 (Quicklaw) [hereinafter “Hunt v. Sutton Group”].
2Hunt v. Sutton Group, ibid. at paragraph 55.
3John v. Flynn  O.J. No. 128 (Ontario Superior Court of Justice) (Quicklaw).
4Hunt v. Sutton Group, ibid. at paragraph 54.
5Hunt v. Sutton Group Realty, ibid. at paragraph 56.