November 15, 2018
By: Jill Davis Simon
The holiday season is upon us and most employees will be encouraged to attend an employer-sponsored holiday party or event. There are many advantages to these parties: they can boost employee morale and offer a fun way for employers to thank employees for their hard work throughout the year. However, when planning holiday parties employers should consider the potential liability that arises when employees participate in work-related social events, particularly when alcohol is present.
Florida courts have held employers liable for injuries to third parties resulting from car accidents caused by the drunk driving of an employee on the way home from work events where alcohol was provided, however, these cases are rare. It is important to note that there is nothing illegal about providing alcohol at office or work-related holiday parties, even if the party is during work hours and employees are required, or strongly encouraged, to attend. An employer may get into legal trouble however if the company knows that a particular employee is intoxicated, but allows the employee to drive away nevertheless. Additionally, a Florida employer could be held liable for injuries to employees themselves if they are injured after leaving the holiday party. For example, a theme park employee sued his employer after he was injured in a car accident on the way home from an office party, even though the accident was caused by his own drunk driving. The employee had planned to delay driving home by sleeping in his car after the office party, but a representative of the theme park ordered him to leave the premises. The court held that the employer had a duty to refrain from ordering the employee to leave, and thus the company was potentially liable for the employee’s injuries.
Employers should also consider the heightened potential for incidents of sexual harassment to occur during holiday parties. Employees may tend to be less aware or concerned whether their behavior is inappropriate when they are under the influence of alcohol or otherwise participate in an after-hours party. This reduced focus may lead to unwanted advances or other sexually harassing behaviors, which can result in claims of sexual harassment.
To reduce the chance that liability may arise at a holiday party, employers should consider the following measures:
- Employees should be reminded that the holiday party is an extension of the workplace, and that employees will be held responsible for any inappropriate conduct at the holiday party;
- Employers should have a written sexual harassment policy in place and ensure that employees understand that it applies in all work-related settings, not just during ordinary or traditional work hours;
- To keep employees from over-indulging in alcohol, employers can hire a bartender or designate someone to serve drinks rather than permitting employees to mix or serve their own drinks;
- Whenever alcohol is available, food should also be served to help reduce the likelihood that employees will become intoxicated;
- Employers should consider providing other activities for employees to participate in during the party. If there are options for entertainment, employees may be less likely to drink constantly; and
- At least one manager should be responsible during holiday parties for monitoring any employees who become intoxicated and ride services should be available to employees, if necessary, given that an employer can face liability if it knows that an intoxicated employee plans to drive after the party. While taxis are an additional expense to the employer, the cost of a few taxi rides is worth avoiding expensive litigation if injury is caused to or by an employee as a result of the holiday party.
Although it is important for employers to be aware of potential liability associated with holiday parties, employers should not be discouraged from sponsoring holiday parties for their employees. With a little preparation and caution, holiday parties can be safe, fun and liability-free.