JOC ARCHIVES

December 11, 2013

Employers must be aware of liability at holiday office parties

Anyone planning a company Christmas party needs to know that courts are holding employers in part, or wholly responsible, for injuries sustained at these events.

“There are two main concerns at office parties,” said employment lawyer Gabe Somjen of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

The first is alcohol.

“How much is served? And, more importantly, are people getting away in their vehicles?” he asked.

Somjen said most employers are limiting and monitoring the amount of alcohol consumed and are providing transportation or hotel rooms.

The second concern is employee behavior.

“The office party is really just an extension of the office,” he said.

“Just because it is an office party doesn’t mean a person can engage in behavior that is harassing, bullying or discriminatory.”

Corporate lawyer Jay Hack of Davidson Lawyers LLP in Vernon has posted Christmas party advice online.

He points to a case where the courts held a company liable in part when an intoxicated employee refused a ride home, went onto another event and then became injured.

The courts still held the employer 25 per cent accountable.

“The pre-planning (of parties) is where to start,” Hack said, adding open-bars are being phased out for ticketed drinks.

The earlier the planning the better, especially if past parties “where everyone had a good time on the company credit card” are now over.

Send a notice to employees explaining the corporate concerns and also the standard of behaviour, Hack said.

A Christmas party is not the time to tell off the boss.

“They (employees) are not in an immune zone,” he said.

As for sexual overtones?

Naughty gifts may not be welcomed unless the couple are married, said Somjen.

Roper Greyell lawyer James Kondopulos agreed.

“An employer cannot turn a blind eye to employee behavior at a holiday party that is objectionable or alleged to be objectionable,” he wrote in an email.

He said one of the most insightful cases is Van Woerkens v. Marriott Hotels of Canada, which involved the dismissal of a manager for serious sexual harassment at a Christmas party.

Insurance is another issue.

CMW Insurance offers host liquor liability insurance.

“Most companies are already covered by this in their existing policy, but they should check it out,” said broker James Lawson.

The coverage provides liability protection for the host serving liquor, said Lawson.

But, it is not blanket protection.

The host still is required to show due diligence.

If a company’s insurance policy doesn’t have the host liquor liability coverage then it’s possible to buy a one-event policy, which usually costs anywhere from $150-$350.

Rental facilities, such as halls, require it.

Over-nighting for employees need not be expensive.

Vancouver’s downtown YWCA offers a single-bed room starting at $65 a night and two double beds at $107.

“People don’t realize we are a hotel,” said Cathy Strashok, administrative assistant.

“We are located next to the SkyTrain,” she said, which makes it easy for party goers to leave the car at home.

If a company wants a block of rooms, “we would work with them” on the pricing, she said.

Mohan Kang, president of the B.C. Taxi Association, said it is easy for companies to arrange taxis for a Christmas party.

“They can phone the (taxi) company and set up a charge account,” he said.

The cab firm will then issue two-page vouchers, the driver will fill in both pages and return one to the client, who gives it to the company.

At the end of the billing period, the vouchers are tallied and the cab company paid.

Kerry McMahon, one of the owners of DesignatedRide.ca, said her company is already doing Christmas parties by assisting drinkers getting their car home.

“We are filling up fast,” she said, adding that the company has five vehicles that shadow the client’s vehicle driven by a designated company driver.

McMahon said the company’s designated driver in the client’s vehicle will also drop off individuals on route, but noted that they we are not a cab service.

For those who want to continue the party right to their front door, there is the party limousine.

Boss Limousine Service has already started picking up and returning party goers, said owner Bassem Daoud.

The limos come equipped with luxury seating, television, music and even a bar.

“We don’t provide alcohol,” said Daoud, but it is stocked with glasses and ice.

The rate ranges from $100 to $250 per hour (for the largest bus carrying 25 individuals) and is charged for pick-up and return times only.

“We don’t charge for the wait time in between,” he said.

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