Is your Company protected at its Holiday Party?
As the festive season gets underway, many employers are in the process of planning their office holiday parties. In planning their events, big or small, employers should be conscious of the risks involved in serving alcohol at a party. While you can never fully account for all of the potential risks, a little bit of planning and preparation can help prevent employers from incurring unwanted legal liability.
In an important court decision on the responsibility of social hosts, the Supreme Court of Canada distinguished the responsibilities of social hosts from the responsibilities of commercial hosts. Commercial hosts can be held responsible for the actions of an intoxicated patron on the basis that they are able to monitor the consumption of customers, that the sale and consumption of alcohol is strictly regulated, and that a contractual relationship exists between the commercial host and their client. Social hosts, on the other hand, are generally not considered to be responsible for the consumption of alcohol by their guests.
While courts have yet to decide whether an employer is a commercial host or a social host, it is likely that employers' responsibilities will fall somewhere between the two. Employers should therefore err on the side of caution and take steps as appropriate to avoid legal liability.
Provider Liability of Employers
In earlier court decisions, employers have incurred legal liability as providers of alcohol. A provider is someone who makes alcohol available to employees or guests. Liability arises when a person is served too much alcohol and shows obvious signs of intoxication or when the person making the alcohol available has knowledge that the intoxicated person will drive.
In one court decision, where the employer provided alcohol to employees after work, the court held that an employer has a responsibility towards employees that is at least as high as the responsibility held by commercial hosts. Therefore, where employers are the providers of alcohol, they should ensure that employees are being monitored and are provided with a safe way to get home. The extent of precautions an employer should take may depend on the size of the party (the more guests there are, the more surveillance may be needed).
In order to reduce the possibility of incurring legal liability, employers should take the following steps:
• Monitor your employees by having someone serve the alcohol, preferably someone who has been trained to recognize the signs of intoxication;
• Discourage self-serve bars;
• Do no serve alcohol to guests that are becoming or are already intoxicated;
• Limit the number of drinks, either served at a time or per person;
• Do not serve strong drinks such as double shots or strong beer;
• Stop serving alcohol before the end of the party;
• Do not serve alcohol to under aged employees or guests;
• Prohibit any drinking games or contests;
• Make sure food and water are available;
• Provide taxi chits or alternative transportation to employees, and make sure the employees are aware of these accommodations;
• Take active steps to prevent an intoxicated employee from driving, even if this amounts to calling their spouse or the police. While this may seem like a drastic measure, it could potentially save employers from liability, and more importantly save someone's life;
• Hold your event at a restaurant, even if you are hosting the event and paying for the alcohol, because the provider in such a situation would be considered to be the restaurant, not the employer;
• If you are in charge, drink moderately so that you may supervise and/or have non-drinkers supervise;
• Be proactive and send out an "alcohol policy" to employees in preparation for the event; and
• If you have had problems in the past, take steps to avoid similar problems.
Occupier Liability of Employers
An employer can also be held liable as an occupier. This only applies to what happens on the property where the party is held, whether at the office or in a private home, or property rented for the party. Any injury that occurs due to unsafe property can be attributed to the employer. To avoid such liability, employers should ensure that the property conforms with all safety regulations. This can include making sure the railing is high enough on a balcony or having a fence around a pool where necessary.
The risks of liability incurred from the aftermath of a holiday office party can be avoided by taking a few simple but crucial steps. Employers should make sure their employees’ and guests' alcohol consumption is monitored and that no one is permitted to drive when inebriated.