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Holiday Parties and the Law

   The holiday party season is upon us, so, do employers and employees have any special concerns with holiday office parties?  Of course they do.  Luckily, employers can take steps to limit their liability exposure, and employees can keep an eye out to protect themselves.

   Around holiday time, alcohol often influences how people behave.  As a rule, employees should watch how much they drink, and employers should contain the influence of alcohol during their company sponsored parties.  Common types of cases related to office holiday parties include: third party claims against intoxicated employees, sexual harassment claims, worker compensation claims, and wage claims.  As you can probably guess, the first three categories often have alcohol consumption involved with them.

   For example, in Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co., (1981) 120 Cal.App.3d 157, an intoxicated employee caused a terrible car accident while driving home from his employer’s party.  The people in the other car were terribly injured.  In fact, one person died in the accident.  The appellate court said that California laws generally bar liability for social hosts when a guest gets into a car accident after a party.  However, the court found that the work party situation was different, at least in this case, because, among other things, the party was held at the work place and during work hours, the employer paid the employee to attend, and that employee was encouraged to drink excessively.

   Watch out for naughty Santa Clauses at holiday parties.  In one California case, Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises, Inc., (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 1336, the plaintiff sued partly because of activities at two different parties.  At the first one, the Santa had female employees sit on his lap.  He then proceeded to ask them about their love lives.  At the second party, a different Santa wore a cap with vulgar words.  Ultimately, the employer was able to escape liability, but only after convincing an appellate court to overturn $250,000 jury award.  Employers, make your Santa’s behave!

   When an employer requires attendance at a party, the employers may be exposing itself to wage claims.  Often the Courts find that required attendance is a function of employer control.  When an employer exerts control, usually the employee must be paid for the time under which he or she was being controlled.  My advice: Do not require attendance at a holiday party.

  The following is a list of things that an employer can do to help contain liability for holiday parties:

  1. Attendance should be voluntary.
  2. Limit the amount of shop talk at the party.
  3. Don’t ask employees to perform special functions at the party.
  4. Invite the families of the employees.
  5. Hold the party away from the work site.
  6. Make sure that sexual harassment training is up-to-date.
  7. Make clear that sexual harassment at the party will not be tolerated.
  8. Harassment policies should cover off location events.
  9. Hold the event after hours or on a weekend.
  10. Don’t take attendance.
  11. Provide plenty of non-alcoholic beverages.
  12. Investigate complaints about party events as seriously as you would investigate other work place complaints.
  13. Choose to not serve alcohol
  14. If the employer chooses to serve alcohol, limit the amount employees can drink.
  15. Have a professional alcohol caterer screen for intoxication.
  16. Only give out a limited number of drink tickets.
  17. Have employees pay for the drinks they consume.
  18. Arrange for alternative transportation.
  19. Provide discounted rates at the hotel where the party is located.


S. Ward Heinrichs, Esq.
Employment Law Office of Ward Heinrichs
4565 Ruffner Street, Suite 207
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 292-0792
(858) 408-7543 (fax)



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