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January 13, 2017

Drunk Driving: Just Cause for Termination

Workplace intoxication is a serious issue that affects productivity and may threaten the health and safety of the workforce. When employees drive while intoxicated, they put not only their own safety at risk, but also the safety of all those with whom they share the road. Furthermore, when drunk driving is done on company time, such actions can expose employers to liability.

3 min read

How should an employer respond when it learns that an employee has been charged with drinking and driving? While each case must be assessed individually, the recent Ontario Court decision in Dziecielski v. Lighting Dimensions Inc. provides a helpful case study.

In Dziecielski, the VP of quality control, who had been with the company for 23 years, was returning to Toronto from a client visit when he took a detour up Highway 400, intending to visit a restaurant. He stopped somewhere short of that destination, where he consumed four beers over the course of an hour before turning around and heading back to Toronto.

On the way back he lost control of the company-owned truck he was driving. The truck rolled several times, causing the employee to sustain life-threatening injuries. He was airlifted to a Toronto hospital where a blood sample was taken. The employee was charged with a number of drunk-driving-related offences and ultimately pled guilty to one of those charges.

One month after the accident, and before the guilty plea had been entered, the employee was terminated for cause.

The employee brought a claim for wrongful dismissal, arguing that he had never been provided with an opportunity to explain his conduct. In light of his years of service, clean disciplinary history, and generally positive work performance, the employee argued that termination was excessive.

The Court noted that although a single, isolated incident of workplace intoxication would not normally constitute cause for termination, in this particular case the employee had done more than exercise mere “bad judgment” or “inadvertence.” Rather, he was guilty of “serious misconduct” that had attracted criminal sanctions for drunk driving.

In upholding the termination, the Court acknowledged that the employer had failed to provide the employee with an opportunity to explain his actions. However, the Court found that the employer appeared to have a full appreciation of all of the relevant facts before making its decision: the employee was intoxicated while operating a company vehicle that he had taken without proper authorization. Furthermore, the misconduct had put the employer at risk of vicarious liability to third parties, as well as workers compensation claims and premium increases.

Interestingly, the Court appeared influenced by the fact that the incident might adversely affect the employer’s reputation and goodwill, even though there was no evidence to suggest that this might be the case.

The employee appealed the lower Court’s decision, but it was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Although the employer’s failure to obtain the employee’s version of events before making its decision to dismiss him was not fatal to the employer’s case, it is always a good practice to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted before imposing any form of discipline. Employers should also consider taking the following steps to reduce the possible liabilities in this area:

  • implement or update comprehensive policies on the prohibition of intoxication at the workplace;
  • clearly outline expectations involving the consumption of alcohol on company time;
  • implement or update comprehensive policies on the use of company vehicles;
  • conduct thorough investigations when incidents occur; and
  • be aware of potential human rights issues, particularly where alcohol use may be related to a dependency issue, which may give rise to a duty to accommodate.

Terminating employees for workplace intoxication is not out of the question, even where employees claim to have drug or alcohol dependencies, but doing so usually requires a degree of caution. In order to minimize exposure to wrongful dismissal claims and allegations of human rights violations in such cases, it is advisable to seek legal advice before proceeding.

Information provided by Ryan Anderson, an employment lawyer with Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP. The information provided in this article is necessarily of a general nature and must not be regarded as legal advice. For more information about Mathews Dinsdale & Clark LLP, please visit mathewsdinsdale.com.

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