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Avoiding alcohol-related injuries and lawsuits at workplace holiday parties
When an employee raises a glass at a company celebration this holiday season, how do you make sure he’s not too jolly a good fellow?
“If possible, don’t serve alcohol. Alcohol can lead to lots of problems,” warned Jason Storipan, a New Jersey attorney with Fisher & Phillips, a labor and employment law firm. Employees who overindulge at a work function can cost a company millions if they injure someone driving drunk, injure themselves, become belligerent and pick a fight, or behave inappropriately and invite sexual harassment charges, he said.
Host liquor-liability laws vary by state, but in some states, employers can be sued for problems like employees driving drunk after holiday parties.
“Alcohol is the root issue of a lot of different legal claims,” said Nicholas J. Pappas, a partner in the employment litigation practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York City.
Yet, 59 percent of HR professionals
surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said their company would be serving alcoholic drinks at this year’s holiday functions.
Brad Karsh, CEO and founder of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago workplace training organization, said that whether or not a company serves alcohol at its holiday party depends a lot on the company. He said he worked in the advertising industry for years and the drinks flowed freely. “If they had said ‘no alcohol,’ there would have been an uprising.”
Sometimes, though, that led to the sort of bad behavior that keeps lawyers awake at night, Karsh said—people vomiting in cabs, executives doing inappropriate things with young assistants and more.
“If you feel like it’s part of your company culture [to serve alcohol] and it’s something people would enjoy, you should counsel people to stay in control,” Karsh said.
It doesn’t hurt to make sure your insurance covers all eventualities, too.
John Keller, director of risk management and claims at Gulf Shore Insurance in Naples, Fla., said that many general liability policies cover host liquor liability. And if they don’t, and the company doesn’t regularly serve alcohol, the coverage is usually inexpensive to purchase separately. If caterers are working at the event, he said, it’s a good idea to ask them to give the company additional insured status so that the caterer’s policy will help protect against lawsuits.
Workers’ compensation coverage can come into play if someone is injured because of alcohol, since whether a party is work-related can be a gray area. In one important precedent-setting case, Torres v. Triangle Handbag Manufacturing Co., the company was sued under workers’ compensation when a jealous employee drank too much at the holiday party, then went outside and stabbed a colleague for dancing with a employee. The court ruled that the worker’s injuries were covered by workers’ compensation.
Experts offered these tips for companies that plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events:
And Storipan advised sending out a reminder before the party about company policies on alcohol and sexual harassment. “I know it can be a buzzkill for the holiday spirit, but remind people: ‘These are our policies.’ ”
Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.
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