By Rachel D. Gebaide, Morey Raiskin & Abood Shebib
The holiday season is here, and with the return to the office and in-person meetings, many employers will encourage employees to attend an employer-sponsored holiday party or event. The positive effects of such events include boosting employee morale, strengthening the workplace’s culture, and offering a fun way to thank employees for their hard work throughout the year. When planning holiday parties, though, employers should consider the potential liability that may arise when employees participate in work-related social events, especially when alcohol is involved.
In rare cases, Florida courts have held employers liable for injuries to third parties due to car accidents caused by the drunk driving of an employee returning home from a work event where alcohol was provided. Despite this, the law does not prohibit providing alcohol at office or work-related holiday parties. That is true even if the party occurs during work hours and even if the employer requires or strongly encourages employees to attend. An employer may get into legal trouble, however, if the company knows that a particular employee is intoxicated but still allows the employee to drive home from the party.
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 their employer after being injured in a car accident on their way home from an office party. This was despite the employee causing the accident due to driving while drunk. The employee had planned to delay driving home by sleeping in their car after the party but was ordered to leave the parking lot by a representative of the theme park. The court held that the theme park had a duty to refrain from ordering the employee to leave, and thus, the theme park was potentially liable for the employee’s injuries.
Employers should also consider the heightened potential for incidents of sexual harassment during holiday parties. Employees may be less aware of or concerned if they behave inappropriately when they are under the influence of alcohol or otherwise participate in an after-hours party. This reduced vigilance and focus may lead to unwanted advances or other sexually harassing behaviors that result in claims of sexual harassment.
To reduce the chance liability may arise at a holiday party, employers should consider the following measures:
- Remind employees the holiday party is an extension of the workplace and that employees will be held responsible for any inappropriate conduct at the party;
- Have a written sexual harassment policy in place and ensure employees understand the policy applies in all work-related settings, not just during ordinary or traditional work hours;
- To keep employees from over-indulging in alcohol, hire a bartender or designate someone to serve drinks rather than permitting employees to mix or serve their own drinks;
- If alcohol is served, have fun or novel non-alcoholic beverages available at the holiday party, too, to give employees a wider selection of beverages to choose from and lessen the chances they will become intoxicated;
- Similarly, if alcohol is available, serve food to help reduce the chance employees become intoxicated;
- Provide 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
- Task at least one manager during holiday parties to monitor any employees who appear or become intoxicated in order to ensure those employees are provided with ride services, if necessary, given that an employer can face liability if the employer knows an intoxicated employee plans to drive after the party (while an additional expense to the employer, the cost of a few rides pales in comparison to expensive litigation should an employee be injured or injure others while driving after drinking at the holiday party).
Ultimately, while it is important for employers to be aware of potential liability associated with holiday parties, employer-hosted holiday parties can be safe and fun with proper planning, preparation, and precaution.
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