Are employers liable for employees who drive home drunk from a work event?

Paul Holcroft, Associate Director at Croner, offers advice on whether employers are responsible for employees drunk driving

Last week, footballers Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett from Championship football team, Derby County faced a barrage of negative press after being charged with drink-driving. The players were involved in a crash following a work function, which is believed to have left Derby County club captain Richard Keogh with a season-ending injury.

While this may seem like an extreme example of a work event gone wrong, this serves as a reminder for employers ahead of the Christmas party season of the dangers of employees behaviour and alcohol consumption.

Work events can be an excellent opportunity for staff to blow off steam and feel rewarded for their hard work throughout the year. However, a relaxed environment and lots of alcohol can cause employees to behave in ways they would not usually, such as driving home while over the legal limit. Currently, the courts have not fully confirmed the potential liability of an employer in this situation. Recent legal developments have demonstrated that employers can be vicariously liable for the misconduct of their employees both during and after a social event.

Last year, a tribunal held that an employer was liable for the behaviour of a Managing Director who had assaulted a colleague, despite the event taking place at a separate social gathering. The tribunal made this decision because the director had organised the after-party, paid for everyone’s drinks and had asserted his authority. Even though his conduct had taken place in a non-company situation, there was still a connection to his job role for his employers to be liable.

Establishing employer liability in a situation of drink driving would depend on whether the actions of the employee are within the course of their employment. For example, if an employee was expected to attend a company event as part of their role and consumed alcohol while being there, it could be argued that driving to and from the venue was a part of their job. However, this would be more difficult to say if the event was purely voluntary, and the employer had taken steps to discourage certain forms of behaviour from their staff.

Employers need to remind employees before a work event of the standards of behaviour expected of them, either in the form of a staff email or re-distributing a workplace policy on social occasions. This email should stress that employees who are above the legal limit for drinking and driving must not drive home, and could be liable for a disciplinary procedure if they are found to have done so.

As a further deterrent to this behaviour, employers should provide information for employees on alternative methods of travel and details on places nearby where they can stay the night.

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