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Holiday Party Liability

Posted November 2015 by S. Ward Heinrichs
Holiday Party Liability

Now that Halloween has passed, the true holiday season starts.
That means, friends, family, and office parties! So, if you are an employer, do you have anything to worry about if you sponsor an office party? The answer is yes, but employers can do things that will limit their exposure to liability.

Some common types of cases that spring from office holiday parties are:
claims for unpaid wages, sexual harassment claims, worker compensation claims, and third party claims against intoxicated employees. Often with the last three of these types of claims, alcohol contributed to delinquent conduct.

Employers can expose themselves to wage and hour liability if they require employees to attend a party. Seems counter intuitive because, after all, you are simply requiring the work force to have fun. Unfortunately, the Courts don’t always see it that way. Requiring employees to attend any event smacks of employer control. Where there is employer control, there is a claim that the employees must be paid for the time. Depending on the specific facts of the case, not all cases may require wages for attendance, but why take the chance?

Sometimes an employer or manager sows the seeds of sexual harassment at a holiday party. In one California case, a female employee based her sexual harassment claims on events at two holiday parties. (Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises, Inc., (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 1336.) At one party, the Santa asked three different female employees to sit on his lap and discuss their love lives. At another, the Santa had vulgar words written on his elf cap. A jury awarded the female employee about $250,000. The appellate court overturned the verdict, but what a bad ride for the employer. Certainly, such cases can survive an appeal under the right circumstances.

As mentioned above, alcohol can be at the root of holiday party liability. In one case, an intoxicated employee caused an accident while driving home from a party. One person died and another was badly injured. (Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co., (1981) 120 Cal.App.3d 157.) The Court found that the employer was liable. The Court noted that, in California, generally social hosts are not liable for post party accidents, but it said the work place connection was strong enough to overcome that defense, in part, because the party was held at the work place and during work hours. Also, the employer paid the employee to attend, and that employee was encouraged to drink excessively.

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

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

Employment Law Office of WARD HEINRICHS

4565 Ruffner St. Suite 207 San Diego 92111


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