Tiger Woods Lawsuit Allegations Highlight Importance of Responsible Service, Brand Culture

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A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Tiger Woods on Monday, May 13, one week after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His girlfriend Erica Herman and the restaurant, The Woods Jupiter, are also named in the lawsuit. Herman is the restaurant manager.

Woods received the medal on Monday, May 6 after he won his fifth Masters title at Augusta National Golf Club. Seven days later, the family of Nicholas Immesberger filed the lawsuit for wrongful death.

Whether the allegations prove to be true or not is a matter for the courts to decide. This lawsuit should be viewed by hospitality business professionals as a serious lesson in liability and culture. Owners, operators and managers are not only responsible for the safety of their guests, they’re responsible for the safety of their employees.

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The lawsuit alleges that Immesberger, who was a bartender, was over-served after his shift at The Woods Jupiter on December 10, 2018. His shift reportedly ended at 3:00 p.m. Immesberger was 20 miles away from the restaurant when he crashed his Corvette, purportedly because he had been allowed to consume too much alcohol. The single-car accident occurred around 6:00 p.m.

According to a police report and the civil complaint filed against Woods, Herman and the restaurant, Immesberger was traveling about 70 miles per hour and his BAC was .256 at the time of the crash. That’s a BAC of more than three times the legal limit.

The complaint alleges that The Jupiter Woods employees knew he had been involved with an alcohol-related wreck in November of 2018, the month prior to his death; employees were aware that Immesberger “had a habitual problem with alcohol” and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; Woods and Herman knew Immesberger was struggling with alcoholism; Woods and Herman consumed alcohol with Immesberger days before his crash on December 10; and that both restaurant management and employees encouraged drinking by employees.

Woods could be found liable in the wrongful death suit even if he wasn’t physically at the restaurant. In fact, according to Florida law, Woods, Herman and restaurant are all potentially liable if someone with a known history of alcohol abuse suffers a foreseeable injury or death due to being over-served, whether Woods and Herman were on property or not.

Today, the attorneys who filed the lawsuit accused the restaurant of destroying video evidence. They allege that video proof existed of Immesberger drinking at the bar after his shift. The alleged destruction of evidence shows that “somebody knew something had gone wrong and they wanted to get rid of that evidence,” according to attorney Spencer T. Kuvin.

Woods addressed the lawsuit earlier today. “We're all very sad that Nick passed away,” said Woods. “It was a terrible night, a terrible ending. And we feel bad for him and his entire family. It's very sad.”

Understanding that responsibility and reinforcing its crucial importance comes down in part to company culture. If what the lawsuit alleges proves true—that employees were encouraged to consume alcohol by coworkers and management—that’s a problematic culture. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time but encouraging excessive drinking and ignoring problem drinking behavior is unsafe and irresponsible.

Another lesson this unfortunate death and the lawsuit filed against Woods highlights is how employees who struggle with addiction are treated by employers and coworkers. Respectful, open-minded conversations must be had between management and employees who have alcohol issues—within the confines of the law—to understand their challenges and how they would like to be treated at work. People facing this type of struggle shouldn’t be shamed, marginalized or ignored.

Read this: Regaining Control: Substance Abuse in the Hospitality Industry

Operators, managers and employees must understand how the laws in their jurisdictions apply to the over-serving of alcohol. It’s unfortunate to have to consider the law, liability and the importance of asset protection when someone has died, but it’s the reality inherent to this type of lawsuit. Business owners, managers and employees should be empathetic and understand the gravity of serving alcohol. But owners must also understand the importance of protecting themselves and their businesses—and therefore their employees and guests.

I encourage operators and managers to meet with their attorneys and their teams to discuss this lawsuit. Not in terms of the guilt or innocence of any parties named in this particular lawsuit but to reinforce the importance of responsible alcohol service and guest and coworker safety. I also encourage operators and managers to show they care about their employees by letting them know they can come to you if they feel they’re struggling with alcohol issues.

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