Serving Alcohol At Work Parties

July 11, 2018 8:16 am

I’m not here to tell you not to serve alcohol at your holiday party. I’m no moralist. But I am a lawyer. And, as such, I have a fair sense of the liability risks you’ll be incurring if you do serve liquor at your party. Last week, I described those risks. Now I’ll suggest some of the things you can do to manage them.


Three Tips for Limiting Liability

There are three things that employers can do to limit liability for losses that employees and other guests

inflict as a result of getting drunk at a company event where alcohol is served.


  1. Monitor Alcohol Consumption

Keep track of how many drinks each of your guests has. Monitoring the number of cocktails consumed will be much simpler if you have a closed bar as opposed to one that’s open, unlimited and unsupervised.


What to Do: Before the party, designate one or more persons to serve as drinks monitor, advises lawyer and alcohol liability consultant Shelley Timms. One possibility is to designate your own people as monitors. Caution them not to drink during the party. “Monitors need to be sober to do their job,” Timms explains. Another possibility is to hire professional bartenders who are trained to keep an eye on how much customers drink.


In either case, issuing drink tickets to each guest enables you to not only track but control consumption. The same is true of a cash bar. This is Timms’s preferred solution. “The problem with tickets is that the guests who don’t drink give their tickets to the guests who do,” she cautions.



  1. Determine Whether Guests Are Intoxicated

The second thing a host must do is try to figure out if a guest is intoxicated. No, you don’t have to administer blood tests and breathalyzers. According to court decisions, you need to make “reasonable assumptions” about whether a guest is impaired based on how many drinks he’s had.


What to Do: The person monitoring how much a guest has drunk should probably make the call on intoxication. You’ll also need to tell your monitors what “intoxication” means. You don’t have to make up a definition. Just use the legal limits for impaired driving. In most states and provinces, individuals can be charged with a crime if they drive with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) over .08 or .10 percent. But here’s where things get tricky. To make “reasonable assumptions” about intoxication, monitors need to estimate a guest’s BAC level by observing how many drinks he’s had. That’s asking a lot, especially when you consider that individuals get impaired at different rates. It depends not just on the number of drinks they’ve had but on their gender and weight (among other things).


  1. Prevent Intoxicated Guests from Driving


If you know or have reasonable grounds to suspect that a worker or guest is impaired, you must make an effort to prevent him from getting behind the wheel. This is fine when the guest cooperates. But what happens if he puts up a fight? How far does an employer have to go to keep an intoxicated guest from -driving?

In the Houston case cited last week, the dancer’s manager asked if she was OK to drive home. But the court said that wasn’t enough. The employer should have gone further, either by taking her keys, calling a cab or requiring her to stay until she sobered up.


What to Do: Use carrots such as appointing designated drivers, giving out taxi vouchers and even reserving hotel rooms where drunk guests can go to “sleep it off.” But be prepared to use the stick, too.

The sticks would include:

  • Adopting a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving;
  • Sending workers a note a day or two before the policy reminding them that they should
  • behave responsibly during the event;
  • Collecting the names and phone numbers of workers’ spouses or, if they’re unmarried, other
  • person who can pick them up if they get drunk;
  • Making guests turn in their car keys if they plan to drink;
  • Appointing a monitor to watch the parking lot in case an intoxicated guest tries to sneak out;
  • If necessary, disciplining intoxicated workers who don’t cooperate; and
  • If all else fails, calling the police.


Tip: One of the things employers do to try and limit their liability is have workers sign a waiver

promising not to hold the company responsible if they get drunk at the party and get hurt driving home. Such a waiver isn’t worth much. Courts aren’t likely to enforce them especially if the waiver is signed after the worker has started drinking. “The alcohol washes away the worker’s capacity to enter into a binding waiver,” explains one lawyer. Moreover, the waiver doesn’t bind third parties that the worker might injure.



Of course, there is a much simpler way to manage host liability risks: Don’t serve alcohol at your holiday party (or at picnics or other company affairs during the year). In fact, lots of companies have decided to keep their parties dry. But alcohol remains a staple at most holiday parties. Your company has every right to make the decision to serve alcohol. But, as the safety director, you should ensure that your company understands the legal risks it assumes when it exercises that right and that it takes the appropriate steps to manage those risks.