February 10, 2001

It's a Liability..


The following story had the Canadian media in a tizzy this week:

A woman attended an office party somewhere in Ontario in 1994. She became drunk. Her employer offered to call her husband or a taxi to drive her home; she declined and left with some coworkers, proceeding to a nearby bar. Later, driving in a winter storm, she (predictably) crashed her car and suffered permanent injuries. Luckily no other cars or people were involved.

Here's the twist: the woman sued her employer for not stopping her from driving drunk. The verdict was handed down this week - and the woman won a judgement of over $300,000 (Canadian.. about $1.65 US.. no really, about $200,000 US).

Actually, the bar and the employer were held jointly responsible for 25% of the liability (the remainder resting with the "victim" herself) but since the bar had gone out of business, the employer ended up with the entire 25% portion.

This decision does not sit well with the editorialists I've read.
They bring up the issue of personal responsibility, something I generally feel is sorely lacking; I just don't think it's entirely relevant in this case.

The Montreal Gazette states,

This is the first time in Canada that an employer has been found liable for a social function, and (the woman) sees this as having great pedagogical value: "This will send a message that (employers) have to stop alcohol in the workplace and be responsible."

But the value she and the court place on responsibility is one-sided. Evidently employers need it, but individuals don't.

Individuals do; she was still held responsible for 75% of what befell her.

Common sense says that in this case the employer (a real estate agency) did show responsibility. The president sought to make other travel arrangements. Yet for Judge Clair Marchand, a good-faith effort is not enough. What, then, is enough? Wrestling the keys from a person's fist?

Um yes?

Consider these alternate scenarios:

1. The woman caused injury (or worse) and property damage to someone else's car (or house or telephone pole). Who would be liable then? Would the employer still not have to take responsibility for the results of his actions?
If I had been injured by the same woman, would I not be within my reasonable rights to expect compensation from both her and her employer, who clearly did not do enough to discourage her from becoming a hazard not only to herself but to society?

2. The employer had called the woman's husband anyway, or taken away her keys by force, or somehow pulled rank and persuaded her not to drive. There's a lawsuit in there too of course.. personal freedom and all that.. but somehow I think the liability would have been much smaller.

Certainly the moral liability would be.

I can't speak for that particular employer but I've been to office parties where drinking is not only allowed but encouraged.. they look at you funny if you don't become drunk. The employer-employee relationship has to be taken into account here, with the social pressures it entails; with those pressures should follow the responsibility of the employer to safeguard not only his employee but their common community.

The editorial continues,

It is astonishing that the courts accept this kind of argument without a thought for the consequences. The inevitable impact of this decision is that companies will no longer want to hold Christmas parties for their employees.

And the problem with that would be... ?

Somewhere, personal responsibility has to prevail. The I-can't-help-myself line has gone too far.

I do agree with that in general. In this case, however, the woman was temporarily physically impaired and unable to make rational decisions for herself. It is up to society, and particularly the employer who provided the alcohol in unlimited quantities, to intervene.

A similar editorial opinion was expressed by columnist Brian Kappler, accompanied by some outrageous product warning labels for illustrative purposes.

I'm sorry but I don't get it.

I'm not thrilled that this woman gets to profit from the experience; certainly if payment had to be made to an innocent victim (if there were one) I'd feel more comfortable with the concept. I think however that the message that responsibility is a group effort outweighs the message that our society rewards irresponsibility and stupidity.

Linque Du Jour:   Donate a Phone

The Wireless Foundation collects cast-off cell phones for use by victims of domestic violence and the organizations that assist them. There are local drop-off points in many states, or the phones can be mailed in.

So far all addresses are US but it's an idea whose time has come, as cell phones become obsolete about as quickly as computers for all but the most basic functions, and are replaced frequently. (Even I have one old phone at the moment!)

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