Employers Need Party Plan

December 12, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — In most instances, an employer that makes alcohol available at at the company’s Christmas party isn’t held liable for damage or injury caused by employees who become intoxicated.

Courts still hold the worker responsible for overindulging and not the firm for providing alcohol, as long as the employee is of legal drinking age.

But employer liability could become an issue if employees are required to attend a party.

Michigan courts have ruled that mandating employees’ attendance at a company party, even if it is off-site, is part of acting in the course of their job.

“If your function is during regular office hours, then you can be liable for any acts that occur during that time period,” said Karla McKanders, a labor and employment associate with Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone PLC.

“If there is no compulsion to attend, then the employer will not be liable. But if it’s mandatory, that there is no question employees have to attend, then there could be liability for things that occur at a company-sponsored event,” she added.

To avoid liability, firms have to offer workers an option to attending the party. But giving them the choice of either working or attending the party is not considered an option by the courts. In this situation, courts could rule that employees may have felt compelled to attend.

“It probably would be considered compulsory because employees could argue that they felt forced to go to the party,” said McKanders. “I guess a decision between going to the party or going home would be more likely to be voluntary rather than go to the party or go to work.”

McKanders said that employers should know for certain which employees are under the legal drinking age when alcohol will be served at an event. If there is any doubt, they should ask to see a driver’s license.

She offered a few other suggestions that an employer should consider if alcohol will be served at an event:

  • Limit alcoholic beverages to two per employee through a ticket system.

  • Assign someone to monitor behavior at the party and to ensure that underage employees are not served alcoholic beverages.

  • Ask for volunteer designated drivers who won’t drink and can take employees who overindulged home.

  • Offer to pay cab fare for an employee who has drunk too much.

  • If the party is held at a hotel, make arrangements for an overnight stay for an employee who can’t make it home.

McKanders also recommended that employers check their liability coverage and if it’s lacking, buy a special-events policy to cover the party. She also said the company’s sexual harassment policy should address conduct at work-sponsored social gatherings and that all employees should be made aware of its content.

And McKanders said that if something does go awry at a party, an employer needs to respond promptly to any policy violation.     

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