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Friday, December 3, 2010

Employee Driving Intoxicated: Wrongful Death Suit against Employer for Millions Going to Jury in Michigan

By Tommy Eden

A federal jury in Detroit Michigan is hearing a wrongful death lawsuit arising out of a traffic accident that killed a mother and her two children when an SUV driven at 70 miles an hour by a sales executive for UGS (now Siemens) plowed into the back of their car. At the time of the afternoon accident, the sales executive had a blood-alcohol level of 0.43; the legal limit in Michigan is 0.08.

The UGS employee was the Executive Director for global sales in charge of a sales team. UGS enrolled the executive in an abbreviated five -- day rehabilitation program approximately 5 months before the accident based upon suspicion that he had a serious drinking problem. The trial testimony thus far is that he continued to exhibit signs of alcohol abuse and it was obvious to numerous UGS employees that he continued to have a serious drinking problem. The executive was on his way from work at the direction of his boss to see a psychiatrist's about his drinking problem and to report back with the doctor's recommendations for treating his alcohol problems. The allegation is that the company knew or should have known that he was intoxicated while at work the day of the accident when he left it 2:30 pm; a blood sample was taken at 5:15 PM that same day showing a blood-alcohol level of 0.43. USG says that it has no liability for its employee's conduct and that the executive alone is to blame.

Video: Testimony in Case on Company Knowledge

The UGS executive was sentenced in April 2006 to 19 to 30 years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the deaths of the family members. The jury will decide whether UGS knew or should have known that the executive was drunk at the time he left the company office and should have take steps to detect such and stop him. The company has denied any responsibility.

Common Sense Counsel: this case speaks volumes for both the human and economic tragedy caused by workplace drug and alcohol abuse. Having a legally compliant drug-free workplace program and training supervisors on reasonable suspicion are the foundational steps of a good risk reduction program; and taking effective and defensible action is critical to avoiding these types of claims. Whatever the verdict in this case, the costs for both sides are too high; including the high profile adverse media coverage. The State of Alabama offers a 5% workers compensation premium for adopting a program in compliance with the Alabama Drug-Free Workplace Act; similar to discounts offered in 14 other states. I recommend again my article dated June 2009 on Drug-Free Lee County -- Consider the Savings which includes a mention of the Shoveling Up II: The Impact of Substance Abuse on Federal, State and Local Budgets where 13% of Alabama's budget is "to shovel up the consequences and human wreckage of substance abuse and addiction.”

Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at