If an employer serves alcohol at a company party, it may be liable for damages caused by its drunken employees under social host laws. The social host liability theory is based on the concept that a party host that serves alcohol in their party should be responsible for acts of the drunken guests.
Most states place liability on employers as social hosts where:
- Alcohol is served to a minor at the employer’s party, or
- The social host employer was reckless when serving alcohol to the guests and should have recognized that the guests should not be served with anymore alcohol.
When Are Employers Considered Reckless?
An employer who is hosting a party is considered reckless when it is serving alcohol to guests and knows or should know that the guests are very intoxicated, but continues to serve them alcohol regardless. A judge or jury will always decide whether or not a host is considered reckless when serving alcohol.
Many states impose this reckless liability on employers hosting company parties and the event involves a business purpose. An employer who hosts a company party generally has a greater duty to the employee guests due to the relationship.
What About Serving Alcohol Outside the Workplace?
Even though a social party hosted by an employer is not during business hours, employees may attend these parties because they feel obligated that they have to attend the office as the party is hosted by the employer.
Many states also follow the respondeat superior theory, which holds the employer responsible for negligent acts of the employee when the employee is acting within the scope of employment. The employer would be held liable if the employee is acting for the purpose of benefiting the employer and not himself by attending the party.
How Can Employers Protect Themselves?
In order to avoid liability, an employer should try to remain a social host, rather than a commercial host. Some methods of achieving this status include:
- Make attendance to the event optional and avoid discussing business issues so that employees do not feel obligated to attend the party or social event
- Make sure that no minors are invited or served alcohol
- Host the event at a restaurant where professional waiters can monitor alcohol consumption at the event
- Have social party without serving alcohol
- Encourage employees to drink lightly rather than excessively
- Provide drink tickets where employees can only drink to a certain amount
- Provide transportation for all employees to and from the event
Can a Lawyer Help Protect Employers?
If an employer is planning an office party and is concerned about liability for serving alcohol, a personal injury attorney can help the employer establish a policy that protects the employer while still allowing employees to enjoy themselves. If you are an employee facing a liquor liability suit, an employment lawyer can advise you of your employer’s potential liability.