‘Tis the Season to Be Legally Informed  

It’s hard to believe that December has already arrived and that the holidays are just around the corner. Amidst the gift shopping and house decorating, many of us are party planning as well. It’s natural to want to celebrate at this time of year with friends and employees.

But as every person who has hosted a party knows, it’s not all fun and games. There are a lot of I’s to dot and T’s to cross. And it’s important to know the potential legal consequences of such a shindig as you dance and drink together this holiday season.

First, let’s consider a few cases:

– In New York, a male employee brought a sexual harassment claim after his female supervisor tried to kiss him under the mistletoe and dance with him at one holiday office gathering and made sexually suggestive faces at him at a second gathering.
– A small Rhode Island company was sued by their employees and found guilty of sexual harassment after employees at an office Christmas party exchanged “gag gifts” of lingerie, birth control products, and T-shirts with suggestive phrases.
– An employee in Minnesota brought a lawsuit against her employer after she was served alcohol at a corporate Christmas party and was later involved in a deadly car accident.
– In Idaho, a court granted workers’ compensation benefits to an employee’s family when the employee choked on food and died at a company Christmas party held at a local country club.
– An Illinois court granted workers’ compensation benefits to an employee who slipped on ice and suffered head trauma as he left a company Christmas party at an American Legion Hall.
– In New Jersey, a homeowner was held liable for the injuries that resulted from a friend’s car accident because the homeowner had invited that friend into his home, served him alcohol, and visibly knew he was drunk and operating a car.

Some of the aforementioned claims were successful and upheld by the court and some were not. In all situations, however, the host of the holiday event was hurled into expensive litigation. To ensure that the bottle of Gluten-Free Tito’s you serve is also hassle-free, here are some tips to keep in mind when throwing a holiday party for your colleagues or friends:

Study Up! Be aware of your state’s social host laws, which hold party hosts legally liable for serving alcohol to inebriated guests who injure or kill someone in an accident. Several resources online, such as the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, offer interactive maps to help you find your state’s law. Social hosts can be individuals or employers, so they are relevant to everyone.
Be There or…Don’t. If you are an employer, make it clear to your employees that holiday parties are optional. Definitely do not make them mandatory to attend. For legal liability, it matters whether the questionable conduct occurs in the scope of employment or not. Do not establish a strong expectation for employees to attend the event and consider holding the event at a restaurant or another location out of the office and after normal business hours.
Follow the Rules. If you’re having an office party, ensure that all employees in managerial positions are aware of sexual harassment and substance-abuse policies, reminding them for the need to respond to prohibited conduct at a party the same they would any day in the office.
Bingo, Anyone? Plan activities other than drinking, be aware of the amount of alcohol being served, and make sure there is enough to eat to slow alcohol absorption and inebriation.
IOU. Hand out holiday bonuses to any employees before or after the party but not during the event.
Uber Home. If you see that someone is leaving your party who has been “over-served” and you are aware of their condition, offer to call a taxi or car service instead of allowing them to drive home. Not only will this keep them safe, but you will be protecting yourself from a lawsuit.

This post isn’t meant to deprive you of the holiday spirit, folks! Party away. Just do yourself a favor: be safe and know the rules.

Happy holidays!