In a decision published at the end of last month, E.M. v. Lounge, Cal. Ct. App. (2017), a California appeals court clarified the reach of the liability of venues for serving alcohol to patrons who later become injured as a result of intoxication. The clarification, however, was not based solely upon the claim that the furnishing of the alcohol was responsible for the resultant accident. Instead, the claim was based on a respondeat superior theory of law. Respondeat superior is a legal concept whereby an employer can be held accountable for the negligent acts of its employee, if the conduct occurred within the scope of the employment.
In the case, a woman had reportedly consumed alcohol that was furnished by the defendant “Lounge.” She was then involved in a car accident and died. Her family brought the wrongful death lawsuit on her behalf. The initial complaint and second amended complaint pursued negligence theories, but the third amended complaint included a respondeat superior claim against the Lounge, asserting that the decedent was an employee at the Lounge and that it was during the course of her attendance as an employee that she had consumed excessive amounts of alcohol. The defendant moved for a demurrer, claiming that the argument should not be allowed, since the claimants should have known when they originally filed the lawsuit whether or not the decedent was an employee, and further disputing that she was at all.
Generally speaking, California law provides extensive protection against civil liability for injuries that occur due to a person who has consumed alcohol. State law explicitly states that “the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries.” (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (b).) Therefore, by law, the Lounge could not be held liable for serving the decedent alcohol because the serving of the alcohol was not the cause of the accident.