Tennessee Court Considers Whether An Employer Can Be Held Liable for a Failure to Prevent Intoxicated Employee From Driving

Under basic principles of negligence law, an individual or entity can only be held liable for injuries that another person suffers if the individual or entity had a duty to help prevent those injuries from occurring. A duty arises out of some obligation from one party to another. This can be created when there is a special relationship between the parties (such as parent-child) or when one party is aware of a foreseeable risk that it has the ability to prevent. This is illustrated in a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, in which an intoxicated employee asked for his employer to be held liable for allowing the employee to drive his own vehicle home while intoxicated, which resulted in a crash.

In Thompson v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., the plaintiff received a drug, estazolam, which was similar to Valium, and he took some of the drug before going to work. While at work, he lost his memory and, according to third parties, became very slow and unresponsive. His manager at the time feared that he was not able to operate the large pieces of machinery that they were using at the time and told him that he should go home for the day. According to the manager, the plaintiff was slow and had difficulty communicating, but he did not believe that he was on drugs. After leaving Best Buy for the day, the plaintiff drove home in an intoxicated state and wrecked his car in a two-car accident on a nearby bridge. Several months later, he sued Best Buy, alleging that it was negligent when it allowed him to leave the store in his intoxicated state. According to the plaintiff, it was negligent of Best Buy to have entrusted the plaintiff with his own vehicle when he drove home. The trial court granted Best Buy summary judgment on the grounds that it did not have a legal duty to prevent the plaintiff from driving his own car home and that it did not entrust the plaintiff’s car to the plaintiff because it had no control over the plaintiff.  The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that it was negligent of Best Buy to have entrusted him to leave the store in a car, given that they were aware of his inability to communicate or operate machinery. In upholding the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the court of appeals relied on its prior decision in Lett v. Collis Foods, Inc., 60 S.W. 3d 95 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001). In Lett, an employee at a Waffle House restaurant arrived for work intoxicated. The restaurant attempted to help the employee sober up but ultimately allowed the employee to drive home drunk, at which point she got into an accident with another party. The third party sued Waffle House, arguing that Waffle House owed third parties a duty to prevent an intoxicated employee from leaving and driving on the road. The Court of Appeals held that Waffle House did not have control over the employee’s ability to leave work or to drive her own car, and it had merely “acquiesced” in her decision to drive. Accordingly, the court of appeals held that Waffle House did not have a duty to the employee and was not liable.

Here, the court of appeals held that if employers do not have a duty to prevent their employees from leaving in an intoxicated state and hurting third parties, they certainly can’t have a duty to prevent such employees from leaving and hurting themselves, since that would be an illogical result. Accordingly, since Best Buy did nothing to contribute to the plaintiff’s intoxicated state and could not control the plaintiff’s ability to leave or his access to his car, Best Buy did not owe the plaintiff a duty to make sure he didn’t drive. The plaintiff’s decision to do so was voluntary. On this basis, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court.

Every negligence claim must begin with an initial duty. Without a duty on the part of a defendant, a plaintiff cannot recover compensation for injuries that he or she suffered. While determining a duty can be relatively straightforward in certain situations, it is often more complicated than it may initially appear. Experienced Tennessee auto accident attorney Eric Beasley can help you develop a strong theory of why a defendant owed you a duty of care. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

The Duty of Reasonable Care in Tennessee When Assisting Others With Dangerous Activities, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 9, 2016.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.

Sixth Circuit Denies Negligence Claim For Lack of Physical Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 21, 2016.

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