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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

T'is the Season: How to Have a Holiday Party & Not Get Sued


By: Dennison D. Marzocco, Esq.
Law Offices of Peter J. Lamont

T'is the season for company parties--and the decision whether to throw them.  Well-intentioned employers want to encourage the good morale of employees, but fear the perfect storm of alcohol-fueled behavior and our litigious culture.  Our clients often ask us what can be done to avoid getting sued.

All company-sponsored events pose some degree of unavoidable risk, but if we flatly refuse to accept all avoidable risk, we'd live incredibly boring lives.  Thus, we offer the following wisdom, with the hope that employers can sanction a good time while avoiding potential pitfalls:

1) Problems usually stem from immoderate alcohol consumption.  Alcohol generally lowers everyone's' inhibitions.  Reliably tactful employees can stumble into embarrassing and offensive situations under the influence.  Not surprisingly, many employers have responded by opting for catered events without alcohol (which can still be fun).  It is a simple way to avoid most issues.  However, for those employers opting to serve alcohol, there are still plenty of ways to mitigate the risks involved.

2) The easiest way to enforce responsible drinking is to serve alcohol in a supervised, accountable way.  Hire a bartender!  A properly trained one can gauge the consumption of his or her patrons, and know when "enough is enough".  Avoid using employees as bartenders because there is a temptation to flout the rules and serve under-age employees.  There is also the ever-present risk of vicarious liability for employee-sanctioned actions.  Absolutely avoid open bars where employees can drink as much as they want.

3) Consider limiting the types of beverages being served at the bar.  Beer and wine will satisfy employee tastes while being less alcoholic alternative to mixed drinks and cocktails.  Beer and wine are more filling beverages and might dissuade some individuals from drinking too much.  Additionally, broaden the selection of drinks with non-alcoholic alternatives. 

4) Always serve food, or at least heavy hors d'Ĺ“uvres that will slow down drinking and lessen the affects of alcohol consumption.

5) Get your supervisors and managers do their natural job of supervising employees!  If supervisors are on watch, they can keep an eye on employee activity.  Remind your employees that they are being watched--intoxication is never an excuse for inappropriate or unlawful behavior.  Also, make sure your supervisors don't get themselves drunk.

6) Invite the spouses and guests of employees.  While the camaraderie of co-workers will enliven employees' spirits, more often than not, the presence of spouses and guests will mellow them out.

At the end of the night, it is comforting to know when employees make it home safely.  You cannot afford to lose key employees to recklessness.  Unfortunately, thousands of people are killed each year by drunk drivers.  Even if no one is injured or killed, the authorities come down harshly upon intoxicated drivers.  There are many ways to keep your employees out of trouble on the way home:

7) Offer caffeinated drinks such as coffee and tea.  Even sober drivers may become overwhelmed and tired by the busy evening.  Falling asleep at the wheel has the same effect as driving intoxicated.  Encourage employees to bring designated drivers.  For those employees who cannot rely on another driver, pay for a taxi-service so they stay off the road.  If all else fails, consider paying for hotel rooms. 

The "takeaway" is that the potential liabilities can be averted through careful, common-sense planning.  If your company chooses to throw a party, it should be reasonably easy to maintain happy and healthy holiday without sacrificing too much of the fun.
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