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By: Parisa Saleki
In Musgrove v. Silver, the California Court of Appeals held that famed Hollywood producer Joe Silver was not liable for the drowning death of his assistant, Carmel Musgrove.
In 2015, Silver attended actress Jennifer Aniston’s wedding in the French Polynesia. His assistant (employed through his company), and his chef (employed by Silver personally), also attended the trip. One night during the trip, the assistant and the chef met for a nightcap, during which the assistant drank half a bottle of wine and snorted a “significant amount of cocaine.” The assistant then swam in a lagoon outside her bungalow and drowned. French authorities determined that alcohol, drugs, fatigue caused by overwork, and heat stroke contributed to her death.
The assistant’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Silver, his company, and his chef. They claimed Silver was (1) directly liable because he paid for all resort-related expenses of the trip, including the alcohol the assistant ingested before her death; and (2) vicariously liable because he employed the chef. The Court of Appeals had to determine whether Silver, as the chef’s employer, could be vicariously liable for the chef’s actions leading to the assistant’s death. The Court of Appeals held that Silver was not liable under direct or vicarious liability theories.
Specifically, the Court held that the chef’s conduct in meeting with the assistant at 10 p.m. in a private bungalow to consume wine and cocaine “was not required by, engendered by, or any outgrowth of [his] job as Silver’s chef.” Further, the chef’s conduct in furnishing the assistant with additional alcohol and cocaine while aware she might try to swim was not a “‘reasonably foreseeable’ result of his employment as Silver’s personal family chef.” Additionally, the conduct at issue “did not in any conceivable way benefit Silver’s employment” of the chef and “was not a ‘customary incident’ of the employment relationship.” Finally, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that “[w]here the employee’s ‘injury-producing activity’ is ‘simply too attenuated’ from his duties for ‘the enterprise,’ there is no vicarious liability.” Simply stated, the Court held that the chef’s conduct was outside the scope of his employment. The Court further held that Silver was not directly liable for the assistant’s death because “his duty to protect his employees is limited to while they are ‘at work’ or otherwise in a locale the employer controls.”
Musgrove is an important reminder that although an employer’s potential vicarious liability is limited to conduct by its employees within the scope of their employment, a substantial gray area can arise in situations in which an employees’ scope of employment and social activities become blurred.