Tips For Holding a Holiday Party, Without Getting Sued

COLUMBIA , SC – November 28, 2007 – South Carolina Laws Differ From Other States.  With the holiday season just around the corner, many employers are starting the process of planning a holiday party. As part of the planning process, each should assess potential risks that could lead to a lawsuit. Especially if alcohol is being served.

With the holiday season just around the corner, many employers are starting the process of planning a holiday party. As part of the planning process, each should assess potential risks that could lead to a lawsuit. Especially if alcohol is being served.

There is always a risk involved in holding any company-sponsored function, said Mike Carrouth, partner with Fisher & Phillips labor law firm in Columbia, S.C.  Most employers generally want to know about the risk involved if an employee drinks too much at the party and misbehaves, or worse, injures or kills someone on the way home. Serving alcohol compounds the problems and the potential to be sued.

According to a recent study, 36% of employers reported behavioral problems at their most recent company party. These problems involved everything from excessive drinking to off-color jokes to sexual advances to fist fights. As a result, about 30% of employers now hold alcohol-free parties.

Since most employers still want to hold holiday parties, they can greatly reduce their legal liability by observing as many of the following recommendations as possible:

1.  If possible, don’t serve alcohol.  This is easier to do if you simply have a catered lunch at the company’s offices.

2.  If you serve alcohol, invite spouses and significant others so that there will be someone there to help keep an eye on your employees and, if necessary, get them home safely.

3.  Always serve food if you serve alcohol, and always have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available.

4.  If your party is a dinner, consider serving only wine or beer (plus non-alcoholic alternatives) with the meal.

5.  If you do serve alcohol, do not have an open bar where employees can drink as much as they want.

6.  In South Carolina, there are specific laws covering businesses that sell alcoholic beverages.  For example, businesses selling alcohol must have a permit.  This requirement would apply to a South Carolina employer operating a cash bar at a holiday party.  For this reason, and unless your company has a permit to sell alcohol, we do not recommend cash bars.

7.  In South Carolina, the holder of an alcohol permit can be liable to an individual for resulting injuries if the permit holder knowingly sells alcohol to the individual while he or she is intoxicated.  In this situation, the permit holder can also be liable to injured third parties.  By comparison, an individual or business operating an open bar at a holiday party will most likely be considered a social host.  Generally, social host incur no liability to guests or third parties for serving alcohol only to adult guests.

8.  Additionally, South Carolina has specific laws that limit a business from possessing or storing alcohol on its premises without a permit.  Generally, an employer serving alcohol at a company party should schedule the event for a private residence or facility that typically handles such events.

9.  If alcohol is served at a company party, close the bar at least an hour before you plan to end the party.  Switch to coffee and soft drinks for the last hour of the party.

10.  Let your managers know that they will be considered to be on duty at the party.  They should be instructed to keep an eye on their subordinates to ensure they do not drink too much.  Instruct managers that they are not to attend any post party parties.

11.  Consumption of alcohol lowers inhibitions, and impairs judgment.  This can result in employees saying and doing things that they would not ordinarily do.  Remind employees that, while you encourage everyone to have a good time, your company’s normal workplace standards of conduct will be in force at the party and misconduct at or after the party can result in disciplinary action.

12.  Hire professional bartenders (don’t use supervisors!) and instruct them to report anyone who they feel has had too much.  Ensure that bartenders require positive identification from guests who do not appear to be substantially over 21.

13.  Arrange for no-cost taxi service for any employee who feels that he or she should not drive home. At management’s discretion, be prepared to provide hotel rooms for intoxicated employees.

14.  Never, never, never hang mistletoe!  Yep, we’re not kidding.  Take a look at item number 11 again, and you’ll see why.

Holiday parties are a great way to show appreciation and develop positive employee relations. If they are handled professionally and with good common sense, they can be a beneficial part of a successful employee relations program.

About the Attorney:
Mike Carrouth is a partner in the Columbia office practicing exclusively in labor and employment law representing management. He is certified as a specialist in employment and labor law by the South Carolina Supreme Court.  Carrouth practices before state and federal courts, the National Labor Relations Board, and state and federal administrative agencies in the areas of union avoidance, union campaigns, labor relations, employment litigation, discrimination cases, non-compete agreements, and wrongful discharge cases. He received his JD from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1988.

About Fisher & Phillips_
Fisher & Phillips LLP (www.laborlawyers.com) is one of the largest national law firms in the field of labor and employment law, with 200 attorneys in 16 offices. Founded in 1943, it was one of the first U.S. law firms to concentrate its practice exclusively upon representation of employers in labor and employment matters. In addition to its Atlanta headquarters, the firm also has offices in Charlotte, Chicago, Columbia, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Irvine, Kansas City, Las Vegas, New Jersey, New Orleans, Oakland, Orlando, Portland, San Diego, and Tampa.