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Mixing alcohol, employees can be a costly cocktail for employers

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October 22, 2019
By Todd Humber

For bars and restaurants, serving an intoxicated customer is not only a bad idea – it can be illegal and have significant financial consequences for employers and employees alike.

Last week, police in Texas arrested Lindsey Glass, a bartender who allegedly served alcohol to an intoxicated patron by the name of Spencer Hight. Later that night, Hight stumbled into his ex-wife’s house and shot and killed eight people who were attending a Dallas Cowboys viewing party.

It was a horrific crime, and authorities have turned the spotlight on to the Local Public House, the establishment where Glass worked and Hight got drunk.

While we can debate the merits of whether or not there was a connection between Glass serving Hight and the slaughter he went on to commit, there is no debating the rules on the books – even if they aren’t always enforced.


Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code there is a “Sale to Certain Persons” section. It states that “a person commits an offense if the person with criminal negligence sells an alcoholic beverage to an habitual drunkard or an intoxicated or insane person.”

Laws like this are not unique to Texas. On this side of the border, it is “illegal to serve customers to intoxication, promote practices that may encourage customers to become intoxicated, or serve someone who is showing signs of intoxication,” according to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

It points out there can be massive, court-imposed financial penalties on owners in cases where a customer became intoxicated on their premises and caused an accident. For example:

  • $400,000 when a customer drank 10 bottles of beer then killed three people and injured two others in a car accident
  • $88,000 to the relatives of a man who became intoxicated at two establishments and died after falling down a flight of stairs
  • $1.75 million when the licensee served an already intoxicated customer whose subsequent car crash rendered his passenger a quadriplegic
  • $93,000 to a car-leasing firm whose automobile was destroyed after the man who leased the car was overserved in a tavern
  • $124,000 to a professional hockey player who lost income after a bar brawl damaged his arm.

Perhaps the most infamous case from an employer perspective was the one involving Linda Hunt. On Dec. 16, 1994, her employer – Sutton Group Incentive Realty – held a holiday party at its offices. Hunt was a part-time receptionist.

The party started at 1 p.m., and by 4 p.m. her employer, Don Gerry, became “sufficiently concerned about her state of inebriation” and said if she was going to “carry on, I’ll call (your husband) to come and pick you up.”

At 6:30 p.m., Hunt left the office with some co-workers and continued to drink at P.J.’s Pub less than one kilometre away. On her way home, in a winter storm, she got into an accident around 9:45 p.m. She was going downhill, lost control and slid into the path of an oncoming vehicle and was T-boned. She was left with a severe brain injury.

Hunt sued Sutton Group for negligence, claiming it failed to properly safeguard her from harm as its employee. She claimed it failed to take “adequate steps to prevent her from leaving her place of employment while in a state of intoxication.”

Sutton Group had a standing offer to all employees that they could take a cab home. The court ruled this wasn’t sufficient, nor was an offer by Gerry to drive her home. Counsel for the employer argued that taking her keys would have been tantamount to theft, something the court also rejected. It also ignored an argument that forcing Hunt into a cab would have amounted to “false imprisonment and even kidnapping.”

The court also said the employer should have “reasonably foreseen” or “anticipated” that the employees might stop at a pub on the way home and continue to drink. (It also held the pub liable in the accident as well for serving her when already intoxicated.)

It ordered damages in the amount of $281,299, which amounted to 25 per cent of her damages plus prejudgement interest. It also awarded nearly $7,000 to pay for a competent administrator of the award.

The liability of employers for the actions of their employers is not something to be taken lightly. The same is the true for employees, who can find themselves on the wrong end of a court case – or even face jail time – for their actions.

While it may not be a popular trend, many workplaces have gone the prohibition route – taking alcohol out of the workplace entirely. If you continue to host parties with alcohol, or even have regular alcohol on the premises – many firms have beer on tap, for example – you’ll want to ensure you have safeguards in place and are prepared to stop intoxicated employees from leaving in an unsafe manner.

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