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Employer Liability FAQ on Holiday Office Party

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for above-the-bar-logo-no12.jpgFAQ: Every year at our office holiday party, there are several people who become intoxicated and behave inappropriately. As an employer, can I be held liable if one of my employees sexually harasses another employee or becomes intoxicated at the office holiday party and then gets into an automobile accident and injures an innocent party?

This is a great question this time of the year when employers are holding office holiday parties. As you plan your office holiday party, you probably have the best of intentions for the party. This is your way of showing your employees your appreciation and a way for your staff to unwind and socialize. However, the potential for liability is enormous between sexual harassment claims and the dangers of drunk driving. If one of your employees sexually harasses another employee at your holiday party, it is still a work related incident. Similarly, any discriminatory conduct or unwelcome racial jokes or obscenities at the holiday party can also be used against you in a discrimination lawsuit.

You could face great potential liability if you are serving alcohol and one of your employees drives home intoxicated and injures a third party. Although the potential for employer liability varies from state to state, all employers should be aware of the following case.

An Illinois Appellate Court recently found that Korean Airlines could be vicariously liable for its employee’s negligent and intoxicated conduct which lead to a deadly car accident after a dinner party. The Court held that employer liability “can arise from acts, omissions or, in the case of respondeat superior, the employer-employee relations, so long as the employee’s negligence is within the scope of employment.” Accordingly, Korean Airlines could be held liable if it can be shown that the employee was acting within the scope of her employment at the time of the accident. Accordingly, if you make employees come to your holiday party as part of their employment or if you have the party during working hours, you could be potentially liable for your employee’s acts caused by intoxication.

A recent survey showed that almost 80 percent of companies throw holiday parties, a number which is down to its lowest level in 22 years. Although employers may be cutting down the scale of the parties, the parties are not going away. With proper planning and some measures of precaution, you can safeguard yourself against potential liability. Some steps you can take are as follows:

  • communicate to your employees that you would love for them to come to the holiday party but that it is strictly voluntary and that it is for their benefit and pleasure;
  • confirm with your insurance carrier that you have sufficient coverage in case of an alcohol related liability;
  • implement a designated driver program;
  • have several of your managers refrain from drinking and watch the employees to determine if anyone is intoxicated;
  • offer to pay for cab fare if an employee is intoxicated and cannot drive; and
  • close the bar at least an hour before the party is scheduled to end.

An office holiday party can also lead to other potential misconduct. For example, keep in mind that if you have a party during work hours or on office premises, an injured employee may be eligible for workers’ compensation. Also watch out for sexual harassment during the party. Although one incident of sexual harassment may not be enough for a lawsuit, alcohol at the holiday party could contribute to inappropriate, harassing conduct leading to potential liability. Have your supervisors watch out for any intoxicated employees engaging in inappropriate behavior. Call our Employment Attorneys at Villanueva and Sanchala to help you cover all your bases before holding your office holiday party. Our experienced attorneys have helped hundreds of employers protect their companies’ from holiday related incidents.

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