Holiday Parties: Can Your Business Be Liable?

Everyone enjoys a good party every now and again, but most people recognize the need to refrain the majority of the time due to obligations such as work, school and family. After a long year’s work, however, many companies decide to reward their employees by letting them unwind at a holiday party. This is a great time for coworkers to congregate and enjoy each other’s company outside of the work environment. However, if a business owner isn’t careful about what goes on, they may just end up facing lawsuits and financial liabilities that they never expected.

office holiday party
photo credit: Jim Fischer

The Dangers

Company holiday parties are a great way to take a break from the normal pressures of the season; family visits, shopping, and especially worrying what the New Year will bring for their continued employment. Typically, in addition to party games, catered food and music, alcohol will be served aplenty during these gatherings. Most employees want to make sure they don’t miss any special announcements, praise or memorable incidents, and may also feel the need to ‘tie one on’ with their supervisors.

Unfortunately, most company party plans don’t include providing a place where people can sleep over if they’ve had a few too many drinks – an individual who sees driving home as their only option can land in serious trouble. Sure, it’s true that they may get a DUI and not make it to work the next day (they shouldn’t have been drinking on a work night anyway), but an employee might also be involved in serious accidents. This is, unfortunately, where liability can begin to attach itself to the festivities.

The Liabilities

There have long been laws on the books known as “dram shop laws” which can place liability on establishments, bartenders and even party hosts. According to Powers McCartan, the laws from state to state can vary widely and it’s vital to be familiar with local laws should there be a DUI arrest. Under most dram shop rules, if a person gets drunk at a gathering – then causes a wreck that results in injuries afterward – the person in charge of the gathering can be held liable.

What this means is that if the normally reclusive guy from accounting has a few too many shots, continues drinking anyway, and ends up injuring a pedestrian on his drive home – the company can actually be held liable for the damages that occurred. In some cases, this includes property damage and medical bills, but juries will often also award punitive damages due to the fact that the host allowed the partygoer to get intoxicated and drive.

Tips for Safer Parties

Any business owner would want their employees to drive safely all the time, but it’s imperative to make sure that the company doesn’t face liability due to the bad choices of a single employee. Luckily, there are a few ways to prevent this. Sure, it put a small dent in that “cool boss” image, but luckily, the owner or supervisor is in a position where they don’t have to worry whether they are popular or not; especially when making the tough decisions.

A few words to the wise party host:

  • Provide plenty of snack foods and beverages other than alcohol
  • Have a “key bowl” to collect everyone’s keys as they enter (use a marker and label tag) to ensure they don’t drive drunk
  • Call a taxi for anyone who is unsafe to drive
  • Do not allow someone who is obviously drunk to continue drinking
  • Hold the party at a location near a hotel, just in case!

Any business owner who is thoughtful enough to throw a party for their employees definitely deserves a pat on the back. But if they’re not careful, they could end up with a “Closed” sign on their door. The holidays are a time for goodwill and joy, and expressing appreciation for a year of hard work. Sure, maybe that intern should’ve been fired months ago, but if they cause an accident after the company party, it’ll be a bit too late for that.