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Business Liability For Serving Alcohol To Drunk Employees

Don't Let Sharing Holiday Cheer Put Your Business At Risk For A Lawsuit


For companies and businesses that host annual Christmas or New Year's Eve parties where alcohol is served, there is a lot more to consider than just the guest list, menu, and entertainment. Employers should also consider the legal liabilities they expose themselves to if party attendees get drunk.

The United States Department of Labor, reports that the annual employer cost of motor vehicle crashes in which at least one driver was alcohol-impaired is more than $9 billion, including wage-risk premiums. "Alcohol use is involved in 40 percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes, representing an average of one alcohol-related fatality every 30 minutes. It is estimated that three in every ten Americans will be involved in an impaired driving-related crash some time in their life. Alcohol, certain prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and illegal drugs can all affect a person's ability to drive safely due to decreased alertness, concentration, coordination and reaction time. Businesses pay a high price for alcohol and drug abuse; alcohol is a contributing factor in 39 percent of all work-related traffic crashes."

Drunk Employees Can Act Stupid

A major human resources firm, Adecco.com surveyed employees who had attended office parties where alcohol was served. According to Adecco's survey, about 40 percent of workers admitted that they, or someone they knew, had engaged in embarrassing behavior at holiday office parties. Perhaps even more cautionary is that 23 percent reported being officially reprimanded for the inappropriate behavior, and an additional 11 percent of respondents either were fired, or knew someone who was fired, as a result of drunken office party behavior.

Any way you look at it, getting, or allow your employees to get drunk, makes the company look bad, too. A host – even a business, has a responsibility for the welfare of its guests. Serving too much alcohol never leads to good things, and, may even lead to a law suit.

Hostile Workplace?

NakedLaw.com offers additional reasons so consider throwing a booze free holiday office party this year: sexual harassment lawsuits.

A female hotel employee in Eugene, Oregon, "filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging that the company party became a "sex party." The employee felt compelled to quit after her drunk "husband stripped down to thong underwear in the restaurant and performed lap dances to employees and guests." The lawsuit charges that "the party involved civil rights violations, sexual harassment, and a hostile workplace."

Any business that offers alcohol at a party held on company premises, especially during normal business hours, or that either pays employees to attend the party, or penalizes employees for not attending, opens themselves to additional liabilities - and lawsuits.

Social Host Liability

In Canada, and states with social host liability laws those who serve alcohol may be held accountable in civil lawsuits if they over serve someone who then goes out and drives drunk and causes death or injury to another person(s) or for damage caused to property as a result of their drunk driving. But even in states without social host liability laws, business host tort liability laws may also be used to hold a business owner responsible in some situations. Even if no criminal action took place on the part of business serving the alcohol (for example, all those served were of legal drinking age), social hosts and business owners may be found liable in civil cases.

How To Reduce The Risk of Office Host Liability

Be Alcohol Free. Your best bet is to simply not serve alcohol, nor allow others to BYOB (bring your own booze.) Serve mocktails instead - fancy drinks without the booze.

Ration Drinks. Give coupons in advance - one ticket per drink and limit each employee to two tickets. Putting names of employees on drink tickets helps avoid the risk of non-drinking employees giving their own tickets to others.

Set Clear Drinking Guidelines. Send out a memo or hold a meeting to discuss responsible drinking and what is expected of your employees. Some associate any chance to party an excuse to get drunk, make sure employees know the purpose of the party is to offer them a chance to celebrate together - responsibly.

Serve Food. Serve ample food including protein and complex carbohydrates -- not just veggie trays and junk. People get drunk faster on an empty stomach, and if a meal is offered, may be inclined to drink less.

Take Keys Before Someone Drinks. Because people who have had too much to drink tend to become more belligerent after they are drunk, swap car keys for drink tickets. If someone wants to drink, they have to check their car keys in first. This gives you greater control over employees who may not be fit to drive home.

Designate Drivers. Make sure you have designated company drivers. If someone does become too drunk to drive, send them home with a driver or in a cab.

Last Call. Do not serve alcohol down to the last minute - "last call" should be one to two hours before the party ends. The Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Education states that a variety of factors, unique to each individual, play a role in how fast someone metabolizes alcohol including body weight, what they had to eat, and what type of alcohol was consumer: "One serving of alcohol is fully absorbed into the blood stream within 30 minutes to 2 hours after intake. This is because the body can metabolize about 0.25 ounces of alcohol per hour."

Plan Smart. You may also be able to limit some liability by hosting a party off premises, during non-working hours, and state in writing in a manner all employees can see (i.e., email, newsletter, etc.) that the party if strictly voluntary.

Do not let your good intentions cloud your business judgment. If you plan to serve alcohol to employees, remember, not only are you responsible for their safety, you could be help liable for their behavior. Everyone has their own tolerance levels - but few people understand that what the law says is acceptable consumption and still be safe to drive is considerably less than what individual drinkers think that they can handle.

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