It’s the Holiday Season…for Employers to Limit Risk

Tipsy employees create a slew of risks for employers, and the annual holiday party may be one of the only times in the year when employees have the chance to imbibe together. This doesn’t mean that employers have to be the fun police, but they should take care to minimize risks wherever possible.

An employer’s liability for the negligence of its employees following the consumption of alcohol furnished by the employer is called “social host” liability, and varies by state. Maryland’s social host liability extends only to the service of alcohol to minors (see Md. Code Ann., Crim. § 10-117); DC and Delaware statutes do not enumerate social host liability. The Maryland Court of Appeals recently increased liability on those serving alcohol to minors for any death resulting from the minor’s drunk driving. This signals that the state may soon be ready to expand the parameters of social host liability to include social, commercial or employer liability for the actions of adults. Even if state law does not provide for employer liability in these scenarios, employers may have to deal with defending lawsuits resulting from employee negligence at or after company events and could end up paying hefty settlements or incurring legal fees.

Employers are not just at risk of issues arising out of employee negligence at or after company events. When employees are under the influence of alcohol, lowered inhibitions may lead to increased risks of harassment. In today’s #MeToo era, employers are likely already aware of the potential for workplace harassment and can minimize the risk of employees behaving badly by limiting opportunities for overconsumption of alcohol. Employers also risk tarnished reputations if an employee posts pictures of drunken activity at a company-sponsored event to social media. In all cases, it is a good idea for employers to do what they can to limit the overconsumption of alcohol by employees.

Precautions employers can take include:

  • making attendance voluntary;
  • having clear start and end times for the event;
    • Early-afternoon start times when employees are working prior to attending holiday parties limit opportunities for before-parties.
    • Cutting off alcohol service at some time prior to the end of the event lowers the likelihood that employees will leave under the influence.
  • holding events at a location where drinks are served as opposed to someone’s home where employees serve themselves;
  • avoiding drinking games;
  • serving plenty of food;
  • issuing a certain number of drink tickets;
  • assigning someone to serve as a sober monitor who will stay until the end and make sure anyone who appears under the influence has a ride home;
  • providing transportation or reimbursing employees for transportation to and from the event; and
  • sending a message reminding employees:
    • of the company’s zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving, and harassment;
    • that if they take personal photos or videos, to remember that people have different sensitivities with respect to posting of personal information and to respect that privacy;
    • to monitor their alcohol consumption at the event; and
    • to arrange a safe ride home.

The holiday season is a good time for employers to ensure that they have a policy in place around overconsumption of alcohol at employer-sponsored events, and ensure that harassment and social media policies capture issues arising at such events. Happy Holidays!

This blog was written by Nicole Whitecar at Miles & Stockbridge.

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