Is an Employer Liable if a Worker Dies Driving Drunk?

A recent court case is making new Mexico employers think hard about their liability for the harm employees may do while driving under the influence.

employer-liable-for-dui-crashThe case involves A.S. Horner Inc., a contractor that provided an SUV so that a crew could transport themselves from an Abuquerque motel to a worksite. One of the employees, Manuel Armenta, was placed on a “do not drive” list because he had a DWI.

Armenta did drive the vehicle, however; he went to food and liquor stores to supply a barbecue, with his supervisor’s knowledge. As a matter of fact, the supervisor attended the barbecue. According to the court transcript he told the crew “to drink moderately and not to leave [the motel].”

Unfortunately, Armenta and a fellow worker decided to drive to a party that night. The SUV crashed and Armenta was killed. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .23, or almost three times the legal limit. Was the employer liable? After all, a supervisor did look the other way.

Armenta’s widow sued the company and lost, but there has been an appeal, and it has yet to be decided that Armanta or his employer was negligent. It might also end up with the fault split between them, with the resulting damages split according to the employer’s percentage.

The Upshot: What Should the Employer Have Done?

Armanta’s employer did have a “do not drive” list, but did not enforce it. Anyone who has dealt with drunk drivers knows that a hefty percentage of them repeat their offense. That is the logic behind the ignition interlock, a device which prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

Even if the case goes in favor of Armanta’s employer, companies should always take strong measures to keep anyone from driving their vehicles while intoxicated. The consequences are too serious, whether or not there is liability involved. That’s why a growing number of companies supply their fleets with ignition interlocks – not just to avoid lawsuits, but to save lives.