Jim Duncey, the owner of Duncey’s Caps, Inc., decides to hold an employee/significant other holiday party this year with live music and an open cash bar managed by a third-party bartending service.  Each employee will get three drink tickets. Jim also hires private security for the party because he knows there’s bad blood between two of his employees, Jake Hammerhead and Tom Colecocken. As the party is winding down, Hammerhead grabs another drink from the bar, even though he’s clearly intoxicated. As he turns around he bumps into Colecocken and yells “Watch where you’re going!” Colecocken, who is also visibly intoxicated, turns and goes nose-to-nose with Hammerhead. At that point a crowd gathers around, and people start video recording. When Hammerhead refuses to back down, Colecoken throws a sucker punch, leaving Hammerhead knocked out on the floor.

With the entire room stunned, Colecocken manages to walk out the door and get into his truck to drive home. At the very first traffic light, he crashes into three parked vehicles. Luckily no one is hurt. The police arrest him for DWI, but Colecocken gets bailed out once he sobers up. 

The next day, Karl Bumler, another Duncey’s Caps employee, finds out that his wife posted her video of the fight on their joint UzeTube account. Bumler called his wife and told her to take it down, but it’s too late – the video had gone viral. On Monday morning Duncey calls Hammerhead, Colecocken and Bumler into his office and summarily fires all three. Can Duncey do that? Do Duncey, the bartending service, or the security service have any liability to the owners of the three parked cars?

Duncey Can Fire the Employees

If Duncey’s Caps is in an at-will employment state, Duncey has the right to fire all three employees without cause – even Bumler because his wife posted the video online, which damaged the company’s reputation.  Additionally, Duncey’s should be able to terminate Colecocken, and likely Hammerhead, for violating the company’s workplace violence policy.

Any Liability to Third Parties?

I previously wrote about the potential liability of social hosts and employers for intoxicated guests at holiday parties. Under these facts, Duncey’s Caps is probably not liable to a third party because it did not exercise any control over Colecocken – remember everyone was stunned by what happened that no one stopped him. The bartending service may have liability if there is evidence that the bartender served Colecocken when he was obviously intoxicated. The private security, however, probably is not liable because it does not owe the public a duty to protect them from the acts of third parties, particularly where the acts involve criminal conduct.

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

While Duncey’s likely avoided any civil liability here, its decision to have a holiday party when it knew alcohol mixed with employees who dislike each other created more headaches than it was worth. Duncey’s could have taken additional precautions to avoid trouble, such as not serving alcohol at the event. Duncey’s also should make sure its workplace policies for violence/behavior and social media are up to date.