Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol became an even more serious traffic safety issue in the U.S. during the recent pandemic. Anxiety, stress, and depression brought on by COVID-19 caused many people to turn to alcohol and drugs to manage their emotions. Too often, these people would then get behind the wheel of an automobile while impaired.
For many, drug and alcohol abuse developed into a substance abuse disorder — and even as the pandemic comes to an end, the rate of impaired drivers on our roadways continues to grow.
Increased rates of impaired driving by the general public is also impacting the workplace. Drug and alcohol violations by truck drivers rose 40% in 2020. That number included a 20% increase in pre-employment violations, and a 27% increase in random testing violations compared to 2019.
Employer and Supervisor Liability
Supervisors need to be aware that when an employee causes a traffic accident with injuries while on duty, the company can be held liable (through a legal concept known as vicarious liability), for injuries and property damage even though the employer may not have been at direct fault.
If an employee causes a wreck while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, even though the company they work for is not directly involved in the accident, the employer and/or supervisor can still be deemed responsible for the conduct of the worker and, therefore, guilty by association.
Scope of Employment
In general, an employer or supervisor may be held liable for the acts of an employee that is committed within the “scope of employment.” But be aware that courts have defined the scope of employment very broadly. For example, if an employee left his or her home in the morning and was on the way to a sales meeting when the accident occurred, the company might still be held liable.
Even if a worker disobeys a supervisor’s explicit instructions and ends up causing injury, if the injury happened while the employee was working, the company could be held legally responsible.
Any time an individual is performing duties related to work, that person can be considered to be on the job, and their actions may be deemed within the scope of employment even if they are also doing personal business and driving a personal car.
Negligent Hiring and Retention
U.S. courts have also ruled that a supervisor’s failure to determine if an employee had a valid driver’s license before allowing the employee to drive a company vehicle, can create liability for the company if an accident happens.
Failing to run a driver’s history check to determine if an employee has a prior conviction for DUI, can also create grounds for liability. Employers have been sued for negligent hiring in cases where an employee had a history of drunk driving and a supervisor failed to take this into account before allowing the employee to drive while on duty.
Supervisors must understand that even if an employee is not found to be criminally responsible for a traffic accident, a civil lawsuit can still be won against the company. Criminal standards for determining fault are more strict than civil standards. Criminal courts require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil courts only require proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
If an employer continues to employ — and provides a company vehicle — to an employee with an apparent substance abuse disorder, the company could be found to be unreasonably negligent.
Companies are often held liable for negligent hiring or retaining of an employee whenever it can be proven that the employer failed to exercise reasonable care when hiring or keeping an employee on. In these cases, the company is liable because of its own negligence, not because of imputed employee negligence.
Not providing adequate training for drivers of company vehicles can also result in employer liability.
De Facto Policies and Procedures
In many cases where an employer allowed its employees (often salespeople) to drink alcohol while entertaining clients or potential clients, courts have ruled that it was reasonably foreseeable that an employee might become intoxicated and be involved in an accident, making the company liable for injuries and damage to property. Even in cases where the employer did not specifically allow the behavior, but there was a history of supervisors turning a blind eye to the activity (a de facto policy), employers have been held liable.
If an employee tests positive for drugs or alcohol and is then allowed to operate a company vehicle on the roadway without first receiving treatment and being released by a professional counselor, the company could be held liable for any accidents and/or damage caused by the employee.
Supervisors should be aware that increased alcohol and cannabis consumption, along with use of new medications that have impairing effects, continue to contribute to an increase in drunk and drugged driving in America. It is important then to enforce the company substance abuse policy and to take all steps necessary to reduce the risk to employers and employees.
Originally published by The Council on Alcohol and Drugs. Used with permission.