We love a good non-work-related holiday party. Work related? As lawyers like to say, it depends. But both can get the host – and attendees – in trouble. Here are some tips for avoiding lawsuits and headaches related to holiday parties.
Employment issues: Sexual harassment or assault is an obvious concern particularly when alcohol is involved. If something happens at a work function, and it’s reported and the employer does nothing about it – or the perpetrator of bad behavior is the boss – it can result in a host of legal problems. Not only can this conduct implicate employment law issues, but intentional conduct by the boss can get around the Workers’ Compensation bar that usually prevents employees from suing their employer in negligence or for intentional torts (like assault or battery). And if the victim is a guest, and not an employee, they can also sue for negligence.
Tip to avoid: If you are the employer, the party pooper in us says spare your employees another work-related obligation and give everyone a bonus. Barring that, keep an eye on how much alcohol is served and if someone is starting to behave badly, get them home safely. If inappropriate behavior is reported, take it seriously, don’t brush it off, do an investigation and, if appropriate, discipline or counsel the perpetrator. Don’t retaliate against the complainer or make them feel like they aren’t being protected – this is when people call lawyers.
If you are the employee, remember that this is fun but still work. Inappropriate behavior or offensive conversation can have repercussions. Most employees in New York are at will, meaning that you can be fired at any time for any reason as long as it’s not discriminatory or because of protected activity (i.e., retaliatory). As long as an employer applies its code of conduct evenly, it’s unlikely you’ll have any recourse if you’re fired for behaving badly at a holiday party.
Premises liability: If you are hosting a party on property you own or have control over, you are liable for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on the property that you knew or should have known of, or that you created. This can include dangerous people present on the property.
Tip to avoid: Make sure your homeowner’s insurance is up to date. This would also be a good time to fix any safety issues you know about and have been ignoring (for example, is everyone going to be entering your house on a wobbly front step, or where a handrail is loose?). In winter, you also want to be sure there isn’t an accumulation of ice or snow where people will be parking and walking. The law only gives us a reasonable period of time after a storm to clean up.
Dog bites: Does your dog get too excited, anxious or aggressive when strangers or a lot of people are around? Pet owners are strictly liable (meaning it doesn’t matter if you were negligent, i.e., careful or not careful) for injuries caused by their animals if they knew or should have known that the animal has dangerous propensities. Under the law, “dangerous” doesn’t always have to be “vicious” (as in Cujo), even though that’s a common term used when talking about dog-bite legal issues.
Tip to avoid: Put your dog somewhere it can’t escape or will not be walked in on, or out of the house completely. Warning people is not going to help you in this situation.
Dram Shop (bar owners and commercial sales): Do you own a bar? Bars in New York are liable for injuries caused by individuals who are over served. So, if you serve a visibly intoxicated person and they leave and injure or kill someone in a drunk driving accident, you can get in big trouble.
Tip to avoid: Don’t be afraid to refuse to serve, refuse to pour shots, or kick people out.
Dram Shop (furnishing alcohol to minors): New York’s Dram Shop law also makes it illegal to furnish or procure alcohol for minors (under the age of 21). This is a good way to get in trouble during a house party and or if you have rented an establishment for a party and serve minors.
Tip to avoid: Don’t do it and don’t turn a blind eye to it if it’s happening under your roof.
We wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season, and thank you for reading!