Employer and Co-Employees Not Liable in Tort Following Holiday Party Fatality

In a case with bizarre underlying facts, a New York appellate court held a trial court erred in denying an employer’s summary judgment motion in a tort action filed against it by the surviving spouse of an employee who died of alcohol intoxication and positional asphyxia following a holiday party [Gillern v. Mahoney, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 7069 (1st Dept., Oct. 5, 2017); see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 22.04].

Background

Plaintiff’s husband, an employee of defendant, Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center (“MSK”), became intoxicated at a holiday party organized by workers in MSK’s facilities department. The party was not sanctioned by MSK, held on MSK property, or paid for by MSK, and all employees there were off duty.

Coworker friends of the decedent contacted plaintiff, a registered nurse at MSK, and then helped decedent into her car. Plaintiff drove home and left decedent in the car, parked in their driveway, to sleep off his condition. Approximately one hour later, plaintiff checked on decedent, and found him on the floor of the back seat, unresponsive. The autopsy report listed the cause of the death as alcohol intoxication and positional asphyxia.

Plaintiff sued MSK, inter alia, contending the employee’s actions were causally connected to her husband’s death. MSK denied the allegations and later sought to amend its answer to assert the workers’ compensation affirmative defense. The trial court denied denied MSK’s motions.

Summary Judgment Should Have Been Granted

On appeal, the appellate court indicated the employees, in assisting decedent and placing him in his wife’s care, did not assume a duty, and nothing they did placed him in a worse or different position of danger. The court added that placing decedent into the car was not the proximate cause of his death; it merely furnished the occasion for the unfortunate occurrence. Summary judgment should have been entered in favor of MSK and MSK’s workers’ compensation affirmative defense was, therefore, moot.

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