With the holidays just around the corner, many business owners and managers will be planning the annual company party. Whenever alcohol is involved there is the potential for a festive occasion to end in tragedy. The question of whether an employer owes a duty of care to employees or the public and, if a duty exists, what is necessary to satisfy the standard of care is unclear. While commercial hosts have been held liable for accidents involving their impaired patrons, to date social hosts have not been held liable. Whether an employer will be considered a commercial host, a social host or a hybrid class has not been determined by the courts. What is certain is that no employer wants to be the test case. Employers would be wise to assume there is a duty of care owed to employees and the public and act accordingly.
There are many steps employers can take to dramatically reduce the chances of being held liable for an accident during or after the office holiday party:
- All employees should be reminded of their personal responsibility to drink and behave responsibly.
- The participants should be informed well in advance of the party about the options being provided by the employer for travel. These can include taxi chits, designated drivers, hotel rooms and access to drive home programs such as Operation Red Nose.
- If the event is being held off-site, the employer should provide transportation to and from the site.
- Designated non-drinkers, including representatives from senior management, should monitor behaviour at the event.
- Professional bartenders and servers should be used at large events.
- Do not start the party too early.
- Limit the types of alcohol being served (avoid shooters) and be sure to have food available.
- Organize activities that do not involve drinking.
- Close the bar well before departure time.
- Try to have everyone leave at the same time and avoid leaving stragglers whose behaviour will be difficult to control.
In the unfortunate event of an accident involving a employee/guest the employer will be in a strong position to advance a defence that a duty of care was met if these sort of precautions are in place. More importantly, taking these proactive steps will help to ensure everyone will enjoy a safe and happy holiday season.