Holiday Parties: Preventing Holiday Bliss from Becoming Your New Year’s Nightmare

December 9, 2010

‘Tis the season to build morale and celebrate hope with an end of year holiday office party. However, failing to recognize the potential liabilities associated with these events can yield devastating results. The most significant concern is associated with the consumption of alcohol. In many states, employers can be held legally responsible for injuries and damages caused by an intoxicated employee or guest who gets into an accident after leaving an office party. Another area of potential liability relates to the “Exclusive Remedy" provision of the Workers' Disability Compensation Act. While this Act usually protects an employer with respect to work-related injuries, such protection does not apply to injuries "incurred in the pursuit of an activity, the major purpose of which is social or recreational" (i.e. the company holiday party). Here are some tips to help protect employers from having their holiday party turn into a New Year’s nightmare:


Consider an alcohol free party or requiring employees to purchase alcohol beyond the first one or two drinks. People are less likely to over-consume if they are paying for the alcohol. Generally, the average 150 lb male can consume approximately 2 drinks per hour without becoming legally intoxicated. Because this can vary depending upon a number of factors, behavioral signs of intoxication also need to be observed. Consider providing drink tickets to limit the number of drinks per person and limit the period during the party at which alcohol is served. If requiring guests to purchase alcohol, check with an alcohol licensing attorney to determine whether a special permit is required for your event. Hold your event at an establishment licensed to serve and sell alcohol, such as a restaurant or event facility, and use their servers to serve the alcohol. If this is not an option, hire a licensed caterer (with liquor liability insurance) for the alcohol portion of your function. Ensure that bartenders are trained in responsible alcohol sales and service and instruct them to stop serving individuals who appear to be intoxicated and not to sell to anyone who could be underage unless a valid ID establishing legal age is provided. Circulate a memo or reminder to employees to drink responsibly and advising them of alternative transportation that will be available. Include spouses, domestic partners or another adult guest of your employees. If appropriate, consider making your party a “family function” with games for kids as most adults are less likely to over-consume if their children are around. Have a variety and surplus of non-alcoholic beverages available. Have plenty of food. Avoid spicy or salty foods that increase thirst, but focus on foods high in starch and protein as these foods stay in the stomach longer and help slow down the absorption of alcohol. Plan for entertainment or some activity for attendees besides drinking. End alcohol service at least 30 minutes before the end time of the party. Have an assortment of desserts or an end of party event/giveaway to encourage attendees to stay after the bar is closed. Designate employees or security staff who will not be drinking to circulate and identify individuals who appear to be intoxicated so that responsible measures can be taken to insure that any such individual will not be driving. Provide paid taxis or some other form of alternate transportation for anyone who requests such or who appears to be intoxicated. Offer the service both to and from the event. Recognize that many general liability insurance policies exclude coverage for events where alcohol is served. Consider a “special event” or “dram shop” policy to cover your event. Request a policy that covers both liquor liability as well as other liability exposure.


Schedule the event during normal working hours. Pay employees while they are at the event or consuming alcohol. Require employees to attend as a condition of their employment. Conduct any type of business meetings or work related matters at the event (before, during or after). Let employees pour their own drinks, or have employees responsible for serving or mixing drinks. Always hire a third party for alcohol service. Make the bar the focus of your event - have the bar in a corner or separate room. Have drinking games or other entertainment that encourages the consumption of alcohol. Knowingly allow an intoxicated employee or guest to consume alcohol. Provide alcohol to minors or allow parents to provide alcohol to their children at your event. *Licensed to practice law in Georgia and South Carolina, Michele Stumpe has been representing and assisting businesses and alcohol retailers for over 17 years. Her experience includes successfully handling multi-million dollar civil dram shop and premises liability lawsuits. In addition, Ms. Stumpe has served as a consultant to various governmental entities, trade organizations, and major corporations and has also served as an expert witness on alcohol compliance issues. Stumpe is a partner at the law firm of Taylor English Duma LLP.

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