With Christmas fast approaching, I think this article is timely, as it speaks to what employers can do to make sure their holiday party is the social event of the year and not a litigation nightmare. Those employers who are planning a holiday gathering where alcohol will be served should be aware of the risks of exposing your company to significant financial liability due to the actions of an impaired guest.
The issue of Host Liability is categorized in 3 ways: Employer, Commercial, and Social. These principles and best practices are important to keep in mind, especially during the Christmas holiday season. In Part 1 of this series, we will focus on Employer Host Liability.
Employer Host Liability
Employer host liability first arose in a court case dating back to 1996. In this case, the employer had provided employees with a substantial amount of beer during working hours. After one employee finished work, he and his co-workers went to a couple of bars to continue drinking. While driving home from the second bar, one of the employees drove off the highway and suffered serious injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic. The employee sued his employer, alleging that the employer was negligent by providing alcohol to him during working hours and failing to take any steps to prevent him from driving while intoxicated. The Court held that the employer was ‘75% liable’ for the accident as the employer failed to provide a safe workplace by introducing alcohol at work.
Interestingly, however, in another court case a few years later, the employer was not held liable for an accident involving one of its employees. The employee in question clearly had a drinking problem. For eight hours before his shift, and during his shift, the employee drank steadily. Despite his intoxication, the employee managed to leave work and arrive home safely, where he continued to drink. In this scenario, he was driving home from a friend’s house later that evening, and was involved in a car accident. The Court of Appeal in this case held that the employer was not liable because:
- the employer did not provide any alcohol to the employee;
- the employer was not aware that the employee was drinking on the job;
- the employee did not demonstrate any signs of intoxication; and
- the employer did not condone drinking and driving.
Similarly, back in 1973, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench did not hold an employer liable after an employee died in a head-on collision. The employee was drinking at an informal workplace gathering. The evidence did not prove that the employer provided alcohol or that the employer was aware of the employee’s intoxication when leaving the premises. The employer’s policies included using taxis at the employer’s expense.
So, what are the Lessons for Employers?
While the office Christmas party is a great way to boost morale by rewarding staff and giving them a chance to get familiar with their colleagues on a social level, employers must remain mindful of their potential liability.
Employer host liability will generally be imposed where the following conditions are met:
- the employer provides alcohol to the employee;
- the employer has knowledge of the employee’s intoxication; and
- the employer fails to take sufficient steps to prevent the employee from driving.
Employers can lower any risks of employer host liability by implementing the following best practices when hosting a company party where alcohol is served:
- hire professional bartenders to serve alcohol – they are trained to identify intoxicated patrons and how to handle them (assuming you get ‘seasoned’ workers;
- provide non-alcoholic beverage options;
- avoid an open bar and, instead, provide guests with a limited number of drink tickets;
- ensure food is served at all times when alcohol is available;
- provide taxi vouchers to guests who require them;
- implement a specific cut-off point where the work function officially ends; and
- promote responsible drinking.
If you think an employee may attempt to drive a vehicle in an intoxicated state, consider taking the following preventative steps:
- provide alternative means of transportation;
- take away the employee’s car keys;
- provide accommodations for the employee; and/or
- if the employee refuses your help and attempts to drive home, call the police.