office holiday party

Celebrations gone wrong: workplace risks at office parties

Business, DUI

The holidays are a time of great cheer for many, with staff members and bosses eager to put aside work stress in exchange for holiday camaraderie. While nothing kills the buzz quicker than talks of legal liability and risk avoidance, considering some of the more common issues that can arise is sound party prudence and can help employers and employees avoid unnecessary personal or financial risk in the New Year.

Consuming with caution

Probably the most obvious concern with a holiday party is the presence of alcoholic beverages. From the employer perspective, it is vital to implement safeguards in order to avoid issues that can arise from over-indulgence, including the following:

  • Pre-arranging a block of hotel rooms for guests
  • Employing security or supervision to monitor guests’ behavior
  • Investing in transportation for guests to arrive home safely
  • Implementing specific guidelines for bartenders and servers to refrain from serving questionably intoxicated individuals

State laws vary with regard to server liability in the event a partygoer overdoes it. However, a large majority of states assign responsibility to servers who should have known that an attendee had too much – particularly in the event that individual opts to drive and injures another person or property. Known as “dram shop laws,” bartenders, catering companies, or even the employer/host itself can be held legally responsible for financial damages incurred as a result of inebriation.

Employees must also be cautious when imbibing in the presence of an employer. Beyond the risk of over indulgence, at-will employees could find themselves jobless in January as a result of improper conduct at a holiday party. Moreover, any inappropriate after-party antics could lead to unexpected claims of workplace harassment or, in the worst case scenario, allegations of assault or criminal conduct.

Location is everything

Employers planning the holiday party ought to be careful when selecting a location. As discussed above, overconsumption of alcohol tends to occur at office parties – and can be problematic for an event host in the event of property damage.

For events held in the actual workplace, employers must take into consideration the possibility of damage to equipment, technology, or furniture. Damage occurring at an outside location can be even more costly, and the restaurant or hotel will undoubtedly hold the employer liable for the full cost of any damage to property.

Is this worth worrying about?

Believe it or not, there have been enough office party mishaps to result in the publication of an entire legal book on the issue. According to the American Bar Association, post-party lawsuits most often involve issues of sexual harassment between co-workers, employees and clients, or employees and outside guests (e.g., spouses, significant others, etc.) – many of which literally involved the presence of mistletoe.

More serious cases handled by state and federal courts have involved partygoers involved in fatal or near-fatal accidents caused by over-indulgence at the holiday party – with some employers left to foot a six- or seven-figure verdict following a finding of negligence. In one Virginia case, the employer was held liable for the death of an employee who was struck by another employee following the workplace holiday party. The court found that the holiday gathering was essentially a mandatory part the employment requirements, and the employer acted with negligence by allowing liquor to flow unabated.

Ways to limit risk

For both employers and employees, practicing moderation is the safest way to help avoid legal issues at the office party. For employers specifically, ensuring the party is well-stocked with food and non-alcoholic beverages is essential. Employees can minimize their own risk by arranging for designated drivers beforehand. In all cases, everyone should keep an eye out for one another throughout the night – as this will help ensure all partygoers enjoy a safe and happy holiday, and a productive workplace in the New Year.