Business

Liability – Beware of Hosting Holiday Parties!

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December can be filled with holiday cheer. However, for some office or home party hosts an unplanned trip to the courtroom can result. Hosting a party is serious business. It’s not just about party favours and menu planning. Recent surveys reveal that nearly 25% of adults are unaware that a party host who serves alcohol to a drunk guest may be legally responsible if that person goes on to injure or kill someone in a MVA.

Holiday office parties can pose significant legal risks. It is not uncommon for adults to have experienced or observed sexual advances between people who work together at office Xmas parties whether they occur after hours or on weekends. An office party can be a venue of a sexual harassment incident just as much as in the office. Although many people view an office holiday party as a fun, carefree, let loose type of environment where normal professional expectations are relaxed, quite the opposite is true from a legal perspective.

Business owners are responsible to ensure the legal safety of all guests at holiday parties. The alarming reality is that many businesses regularly fail to take the necessary precautions. Very few entrepreneurs collect car keys at office parties where alcohol is being served and return them to only sober drivers. Additionally, far too many business owners fail to provide taxis or a designated driver service to their employees who need it. These are simple and inexpensive strategies to mitigate risk.

There have been two alarming social host liability cases in Canadian courts in the past decade. In a recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court in Linda Hunt v. Sutton Group Incentive Realty Inc., the Court ordered the Sutton Group to pay Linda Hunt $300,000 in damages when she suffered permanent physical and brain injuries in a car accident that occurred when she was driving home drunk from an office party in 1994. The Court ruled that the Sutton Group was partly responsible because they ran an open bar at their business party. This is despite the fact that Ms. Hunt drove to a bar and continued drinking for another 90 minutes before she tried to drive home. Even though the Sutton Group did offer to call Hunt’s husband to drive her home, the Court ruled that the Company should have taken more proactive measures to prevent Hunt from driving home drunk such as taking custody of her car keys and vehicle, or sending her home in a taxi at the Company’s expense.

The second case is a B.C. decision, Prevost v. Vetter. In this case, Greg and Shari Vetter were ordered to pay part of the $2.5 million damages awarded to Adam Prevost. Prevost suffered severe brain injuries in a car accident that occurred after he (and other teens) were drinking at a party at the Vetter’s home in 1998. The alarming facts are that the Vetters were asleep during the party, they did not serve alcohol to any of the guests or even know that alcohol was being consumed. The Vetters won their case on appeal in May, 2002. However, the case was sent back to the lower courts for a new trial.

Here are some helpful hints to keep in mind if you plan on hosting a holiday party:

Keep company behavioural policies in effect. Feel free to shoot the breeze and catch up with your long lost buddies in the accounting or marketing department. Just remember to keep your conversation and conduct appropriate. For those who will be planning games and activities, make sure they don’t violate workplace standards. Avoid planning games that involve organized chaos. Abusing mistletoe privileges can lead to expensive lawsuits. Maintain your professional candor and don’t pull a Michael Scott!

Watch the alcohol consumption. If you choose to serve alcohol, you may want to avoid open bars and unlimited drinks. A ticket or voucher system works nicely to pace the power drinkers, and an earlier last call is always a prudent idea. Find out how your guests are planning to get home. It’s not enough to just ask your guests if they’ll “be all right” as they’re leaving. Intervene if necessary. Be sure you have reliable people to back you up in case you need to actually take someone’s keys away from him or her.

Exercise equality when presenting gifts or awards. The end of the year is a great time to honor those who have demonstrated exemplary performance at their job. Make sure that gifts and awards are presented in a way that does not suggest favoritism. This is especially true if the gift is coming directly from a supervisor or managing partner. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with boosting team morale. Just be careful. Favoritism or special treatment in the workplace could result in disciplinary actions or a human rights complaint of workplace discrimination.

Always consult an experienced legal professional to support you with all of your legal needs.

With this in mind, C2K Law Corporation provides timely legal advice in relation to all types of corporate/commercial and business law matters. We strive to deliver an affordable, value-added service to suit your individual needs. We recognize that you are concerned about the costs of legal services. We do our best to provide a low cost value added service by leveraging technology and reducing overhead expenses passing the savings on to you. We use our entrepreneurship in our creative problem-solving approach, which enables us to take immediate and decisive action.

*The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

Bal Bhullar
Bal Bhullar is a corporate/commercial lawyer who owns and operates C2K Law Corporation. Bal has over 20 years of international and domestic practice experience. He has worked in private practice in Vancouver and Bermuda as well as in-house with public and private companies in the mining, aviation, telecom and technology, construction, oil and propane, insurance, management consulting and health care industries. Bal's areas of expertise include corporate finance, banking law, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, corporate restructurings, governance and compliance, company law, contracts and all types of commercial transactions. Bal is the member of the Law Society of B.C. and is admitted as a Barrister and Attorney in Bermuda. Bal is a business savvy lawyer who is solutions oriented and focused on delivering high value advice and service to all of his clients.
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