Do you have a legal duty to a third party?

by Katherine Stepp

[Originally published in the Dallas Business Journal]

Imagine, for a moment, that you are the COO of a large company, and you are interviewing an architect for an upcoming commercial project over drinks at a bar. You share that you’ve narrowed down the award of the contract to him and one other firm. The architect drinks excessively during the meeting and becomes noticeably intoxicated. He begins to talk disparagingly about the other firm and even says, “I’d do anything to put them out of business.” To avoid extending an awkward situation, you pay for drinks and ask the architect if you can call him an Uber. He refuses.

The next day, you learn that the architect left the bar and drove to his competitor’s office where he commits arson, burning the building to the ground. A victim of the arson files a lawsuit — not only against the arsonist — but you and your company, claiming that:

• You had a duty to step in to prevent the arson

• You should have foreseen the arson because of the architect’s comment and his state of inebriation

• You took control of the situation when you offered to call an Uber and then proved negligent by allowing the architect to illegally drive away intoxicated

Can you and your company be held liable for the arson?