It’s Christmas party season, and while with that comes fun, it also brings liability concerns as courts are holding employers in part or wholly responsible for injuries sustained at these events. Anyone holding an office party needs to be aware of a few key concerns, employment lawyer Gabe Somjen of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP told the Journal of Commerce.
“There are two main concerns at office parties,” he said. The first is alcohol. Consider “how much is served? And, more importantly, are people getting away in their vehicles?”
Somjen said most employers reacting to liability concerns by limiting and monitoring the amount of alcohol consumed, and providing transportation or hotel rooms.
The second concern Somjen highlighted is employee behaviour.
“The office party is really just an extension of the office,” he said. “Just because it is an office party doesn’t mean a person can engage in behaviour that is harassing, bullying or discriminatory.”
Roper Greyell lawyer James Kondopulos agreed.
“An employer cannot turn a blind eye to employee behaviour at a holiday party that is objectionable or alleged to be objectionable,” he told the Journal of Commerce in an email. He said one of the most insightful cases is Van Woerkens v. Marriott Hotels of Canada, which involved the dismissal of a manager for serious sexual harassment at a Christmas party.
Corporate lawyer Jay Hack of Davidson Lawyers LLP in Vernon, BC has posted Christmas party advice online.
He points to a case where the courts held a company liable in part when an intoxicated employee refused a ride home, went onto another event and then became injured. The courts still held the employer 25 per cent accountable.
“The pre-planning (of parties) is where to start,” Hack said, adding open-bars are being phased out for ticketed drinks. Hack recommends sending a notice to employees explaining the corporate concerns and also the standard of behaviour.
Insurance is another issue. Coverage is available for host liquor liability, but it is not blanket protection and the host still is required to show due diligence.
“Most companies are already covered by this in their existing policy, but they should check it out,” said broker James Lawson. If a company’s insurance policy doesn’t have the host liquor liability coverage, then it’s possible to buy a one-event policy, which usually costs anywhere from $150-$350.
Getting employees home – or to a hotel – can also be worth the cost and is surprisingly easy to set up.
Mohan Kang, president of the B.C. Taxi Association, said it is easy for companies to arrange taxis for a Christmas party.
“They can phone the (taxi) company and set up a charge account,” he said.
Kerry McMahon, one of the owners of DesignatedRide.ca, said her company is already doing Christmas parties by assisting drinkers getting their car home. “We are filling up fast,” she said, adding that the company has five vehicles that shadow the client’s vehicle driven by a designated company driver. Several similar options are available across the country. Consider working with a non-profit group to set up a designated-driver fundraiser.
Article excerpted from the BC Journal of Commerce.