BUSINESS LAW 101 / Holiday Parties

By Albert L. Kelley, Esq.

T’is the season for holiday parties. Whether a small gathering of friends for the obligatory office party, there is likely no busier month for parties than December. And with these celebrations come liabilities that both host and guest must be aware of.

The most obvious of the liabilities is the spiked eggnog or other alcoholic beverages. While many would say that an office party without alcohol is not an office party at all, the risks that come with serving alcohol at such a party could shut down the business. Most states have what are referred to as “dram shop laws”. These laws are generally focused on businesses that sell alcohol, and create liability if those businesses sell alcohol to already inebriated people who then may get into an accident or some other situation the creates harm to another. Florida’s dram shop law is quite limited. It generally only applies to businesses when those businesses sell alcohol to a minor or to a person who is habitually addicted to alcohol. This does not mean your holiday party is off the hook. Even if you’re not selling alcohol, you can be held criminally responsible for serving alcohol to a minor. You also can be held responsible if you recklessly serve alcohol to an inebriated person who then does something to hurt themselves or others. It is up to the host to monitor their guest to ensure that under age partiers are not drinking alcoholic beverages, that those guests who are clearly inebriated are not further served alcohol beverages and that those guests who are clearly inebriated do not get behind the wheel of a car. Many employers try to restrict liability by limiting the number of drinks any guest may have through the use of drink tickets, restricting type of alcohol sold, or even having a cash bar.

Another area of liability that has been in the news recently is harassment or assault. We’ll talk about this issue in detail in a later column however in the scope of holiday parties, especially those that serve alcohol, because employees feel less restrictive, the possibility of harassment or even assault increase. This can carry over even after the party if the employees post pictures of the event on social media. Employers need to be aware that they are responsible for providing secure and safe environment not only during the workday but also at any company sponsored function. To protect from this, employers need to ensure they have a sexual harassment policy, that the employees know that the policy extends to any company sponsored function and that the policy will be enforced. Many employers will also send out a memo to all employees tried to the event reminding them to behave responsibly during the holiday party.

The final area of liability is in the financial department regarding whether you have to pay employees who attend the party. If the employer makes attendance at the holiday party mandatory, they may be obligated to pay the employees an hourly wage for the time attending the party. Attendance should always be voluntary with no benefit attached to attending or not attending. In other words, do not conduct business during the party, and don’t infer that employees who attend will be given any benefit or promotional opportunities. If there is any hint that attendance can boost their position in the company, it may be looked at as a mandatory attendance which could require them to be paid. This also minimizes the chance that an employee injured at the party after having one too many (or even if not drinking) can file a workers compensation case against the business.

Al Kelley is a Florida business law attorney located in Key West and previously taught business law, personnel law and labor law at St. Leo University. He is also the author of “Basics of Business Law” “Basics of Florida’s Small Claims Court” and “Basics of Florida’s Landlord-Tenant Law” (Absolutely Amazing e-Books). This article is being offered as a public service and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you have any questions about legal issues, you should confer with a licensed Florida attorney.