Trachtman & Trachtman, LLP Wins MSJ for Target in Wrongful Death Case

Facts: On January 19, 2011, at approximately 12:50 a.m., while driving in a freeway carpool lane, a young couple (the decedents), in their early 20’s were killed by a drunk driver, also in his early 20’s. The drunk driver was a Target employee who had been working at a Target store earlier in the evening.

The Target employee clocked out at 11:35 p.m. following his shift. At the time of the collision, the Target employee was so intoxicated that he was driving his vehicle in the carpool lane, on the wrong side of the freeway and ended up colliding, head on, with the decedents’ vehicle.

The Plaintiffs consisted of the husband of the female decedent (they were separated but still maintained a very friendly relationship), the then three-year old daughter of the female decedent, and the parents of the male decedent. From the discovery undertaken in the matter, both decedents appeared to be very nice, educated and productive young adults who were very close with their respective families. The accident was a true tragedy for these families. Based on these facts, the case had significant exposure.

Earlier in the evening, during the Target employee’s meal break, the Target employee, in the company of another Target co-worker, left the store and purchased a small bottle of vodka. During the meal break the Target employee mixed a couple of capfuls of vodka into his soft drink and consumed the drink before returning to clock back in and finish his shift. The unconsumed vodka was left in his vehicle. The co-worker testified that the Target employee told him during the meal break that he hid his consumption of alcohol from Target’s management and that it was not a frequent practice.

Between clocking back into work following his meal break and clocking out at 11:35 p.m., there was no evidence that the Target employee consumed any additional alcohol. Two co-workers testified that they had interacted with the employee during the later portion of his shift and he exhibited no signs of slurred speech, red eyes or any other behavior that would have led them to believe that the employee had consumed any alcohol that evening or at any point prior to arriving for his shift.

The Target employee, who survived the accident and is now serving a prison sentence, testified that he did not recall any of the events of that evening. He also testified that prior to the day of the accident, he did not show up to work under the influence of alcohol and knew that Target strictly prohibited him from working while under the influence and consuming alcohol during his shift or on its premises.

After clocking out at 11:35 p.m. and after agreeing to give a ride home to the same co-worker who shared his meal break with him, the Target employee and the co-worker got into the employee’s car and each took a swig of the vodka before driving away from the premises. On the way to the freeway, the employee decided to stop at a store and pick up a six pack of beer. After re-entering his vehicle, the employee, with his teeth, removed the bottle caps for two beers and handed one to the co-worker. While driving the co-worker home, over a 20 minute period, the employee drank 1-2 beers and threw the bottles out of the window. The co-worker, who consumed no further vodka and did not drink any portion of his beer, testified that the Target employee actually drove him home in a safe manner and further opined that the employee did not appear inebriated during the drive home. After dropping off the co-worker, the employee left and ultimately crashed his vehicle into the decedents’ car.

Plaintiffs filed suit in Orange County Superior Court against Target claiming that Target knew that the employee had a drinking problem such that he routinely showed up for work after consuming alcohol. Plaintiffs further alleged that the employee routinely drank alcohol during his shift and that the employee did so because the employee “believed that the use of alcohol on the job helped him to relax and deal more comfortably and effectively with Target customers and helped him to deal with the stresses of his regular job duties for Target.” Plaintiffs also alleged that the on-the-job drinking of alcohol by the employee was broadly incidental to his work and was not so unusual or startling that it would be unfair to include the risks of such conduct with other costs of Target’s business enterprise, and “would further the public policies in favor of imposing vicarious liability on the employer for risks arising out of the employment.” Finally, Plaintiffs alleged that it was foreseeable that the employee would attempt to drive home from work while still intoxicated and that said conduct was a substantial factor in causing the accident approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes after clocking out.

After completing discovery, Trachtman & Trachtman filed a Motion for Summary Judgment with the Court. We argued that Plaintiffs failed to establish any basis for Respondeat Superior and/or vicarious liability. Target contended that its policies strictly forbade alcohol consumption and that it had no knowledge whatsoever of the employee’s drinking on the night of the incident. We also rebutted Plaintiffs’ “broadly incidental” claims while further rejecting Plaintiffs’ factual contentions concerning the employee’s practice of alcohol use and the purported reasons for same. The employee refuted these claims with his own testimony. In the end, Plaintiffs could not establish any of the facts which were analogous to precedent cases finding an employer liable for its employee’s use of alcohol. Rather, we argued that Plaintiffs were essentially contending that Target should be strictly liable to them because they proved that Target’s employee had consumed alcohol during his shift.

Outcome: On October 20, 2014, Orange County Superior Court Judge Linda Marks granted Target’s Motion for Summary Judgment. On September 14, 2016 the Fourth Appellate District (Division 3) affirmed the Superior Court Ruling. Ben Trachtman, Ryan Craig and Kelli Trachtman worked very hard to collaborate on this victory.