Thursday, July 9, 2015

Party Time: Mixing Drinks at the Company Picnic

It’s summer, and time for company softball tournaments, picnics, and outdoor happy hours. These are functions at which employees get a chance to relax with each other, meet each other’s families, and bond over outdoor games and company team victories. These events can be great, but there are risks that employers face when fun events are mixed with alcohol.
We’ll admit that we’ve put on our negative nelly hats for this post, but we’re not prohibitionists, (we promise.)  We just want employers to think about the consequences of providing alcohol to employees at company-organized or company-sponsored gatherings.
First, employers need to be aware of Dram Shop laws.  These laws impose liability on bars, restaurants, and individuals (including corporate “individuals”) who knowingly serve alcohol to an intoxicated person who goes on to harm someone due to their drunken state.  Organizations like MADD have successfully encouraged the passage of Dram Shop laws in thirty states over the past several decades.  Although the laws are most frequently enforced against bartenders who overserve patrons, employers may also face liability if a worker becomes intoxicated and harms himself or someone else.  Companies like Marriott and Gold Club, among others, have faced criminal charges or civil liability when employees drank too much at work or at a company get together.
The liability standards under Dram Shop laws are quite similar to liability standards for negligence. Employers generally owe their employees a duty of reasonable care.  If the employer fails in its duty of reasonable care by allowing employees to drink to excess and then drive, for example, it can be liable for the consequences.  If the employer provides unlimited alcohol to employees at a company party and an employee falls off a balcony or stumbles and accidentally pushes someone else off, that could also lead to legal liability. Each situation is different, and employees may enjoy a drink or two at company events, but once they become intoxicated, employers should make reasonable efforts to prevent harm to the employees and others.  Don’t, for example, purchase 11 kegs of beer for a supervisor’s birthday party.  Limit alcohol availability, provide food, monitor behavior, and offer employees a ride home or an opportunity to sober up before they leave.  These steps can limit the risk of employer liability, and can go a long way toward making sure a company event is both fun and safe.
Second, employers need to remember that alcohol-fueled behavior at company events can give rise to complaints of inappropriate behavior.  Sexual harassment, offensive remarks about race or religion or sexual orientation, and arguments that lead to violence are among the unfortunate outcomes of excessive drinking.  Any of these behaviors can lead to employer liability, and all are likely to have a negative effect on the workplace after the employees sober up. 
With these concerns in mind, we hope employers will keep alcohol consumption under control at company events, and maybe even plan events that involve no alcohol at all. Now, go have some fun!
Posted by Judy Langevin and Kate Bischoff