The holiday season is when office parties abound. It’s also the season to be especially aware of the risks and responsibilities involved in serving alcohol at work-related events.
When it comes to serving alcohol, employers are held to a higher standard than other hosts. In most cases, social hosts are not liable for injuries suffered by innocent third parties who encounter intoxicated guests. However, employers who serve alcohol at work-related events have been found to owe a duty of care similar to that owed by commercial liquor providers. This responsibility extends to party guests and anyone else, such as other drivers on the road, who might encounter intoxicated guests.
In short, employers are expected to take reasonable steps to prevent employees from becoming intoxicated, and to take positive action (such as providing another means of transportation home) once a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm arises from over-service.
Employers may be exposed to liability if an intoxicated employee leaves a work-related party and ends up injuring someone. In the BC case of Jacobsen v. Nike Canada Ltd., for example, an employee was involved in a car accident and rendered a quadriplegic after leaving work intoxicated. His employer had supplied beer to employees that evening but had placed no restrictions on how much they could drink, and did nothing to prevent the plaintiff (who consumed eight beers in three hours) from driving away.
The employer was held in breach of its duty by providing large quantities of alcohol to employees, not monitoring their consumption, and allowing them to drive home. The employer was found to be 75% responsible for the employee’s injuries.
In the Ontario case of Hunt (Litigation Guardian of) v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc., an employee became intoxicated at a Christmas office party with an unmonitored bar and was injured in a car accident after she left the party. The trial judge concluded that the employer was under an obligation to safeguard her from harm and this obligation extended to ensuring she did not become intoxicated and, if she did, taking steps to stop her from driving home.
In a very different case, John v. Flynn, the employer was not found responsible for injuries from a car accident caused by an intoxicated employee. The key difference in this case was that there had been no party or social event. The employee had been secretly drinking at the workplace and the employer was unaware of it. Even though the employer knew that some drinking was happening on work grounds and that this employee had a known drinking problem, this was not sufficient to make the employer responsible to all members of the public who might come in contact with employees outside of the workplace.
With office parties, however, employers acting as hosts have a duty to protect both employees who became intoxicated and third parties who might encounter them. And the risks aren’t limited to injuries: employers can also be held liable if misconduct at work parties leads to harassment claims.
It’s still possible to celebrate the season. The key is planning ahead and taking steps to reduce risk:
- Remind employees, in writing before the event, that they are expected to moderate their intake of alcohol, accept responsibility for their own consumption, and co-operate with your efforts to ensure their safety.
- Provide a good choice of food and non-alcoholic beverages; encourage your guests to spend more time eating than drinking.
- Have your management team set a good example by remaining sober.
- Consider asking employees to turn in their car keys before being served alcohol. Obtain telephone numbers in advance for spouses or other family members in the event you need to contact them.
- Hire or appoint a trained person to monitor alcohol consumption and behaviour and take action when impairment is detected.
- Set and enforce strict limits on the number of drinks an employee may purchase.
- Don’t assume your company is protected from liability simply because the event is held at a commercial establishment or has a cash bar.
- Don't distribute free drink tickets or provide an open bar and definitely don’t allow employees to mix and pour their own drinks.
- Be especially careful to eliminate bulk buying later in the evening and ensure that the bar closes well before the end of the event.
- Don't allow employees who are exhibiting signs of impairment to continue drinking.
- Ask departing guests if they have a safe ride home.
- Provide designated drivers or alternate means of transportation directly home for employees who have consumed alcohol.
- Don't allow a potentially impaired employee to leave the event unless accompanied by a designated driver (or another sober person) who has clear instructions to get the employee directly home.
- Don’t ever leave the decision of whether to drive in the hands of a potentially impaired employee and don’t be reluctant to contact the police immediately if a potentially impaired employee manages to leave unaccompanied.
- Don’t hesitate to invoke your authority as the employer in assuring compliance with your efforts to ensure your employees’ safety.
- Consider purchasing additional insurance to ensure there are no gaps in coverage. For example, server liability insurance is available for servers at such events, providing protection against injury and property damage resulting from the provision of alcohol.
- Obtain, if necessary, a Special Event Permit (SEP). It’s required if you are planning to serve alcohol in an unlicensed public area (such as a rented hall) and expect fewer than 500 people; it’s not required if the event is held privately at a closed unlicensed business premises and alcohol is served but not sold. More information and an on-line application can be found at specialevents.bcldb.com.
- Note too that SEP holders, managers and servers must also take a Special Event Server (SES) course before the event. This course helps anyone involved in the sale and service of alcohol at SEP events to understand their legal responsibilities and prevent problems arising from over-service. The course can be completed online at www.specialeventserver.com and is not needed for anyone who already has a valid Serving It Right certificate.
Employers do have a heightened level of responsibility when serving alcohol at holiday parties but, with a little extra planning, it’s possible to host an event that’s memorable for all the right reasons.