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Avoiding Liability at Your Practice for Holiday Party Fouls


Keep your office holiday party liability free by following some basic rules and being a good professional host.

As we prepare to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday this week many of you are on your way to your annual office holiday party as well. We get calls every year about accidents and other serious liabilities related to these parties and many of these problems are both predictable and preventable. Despite these repeated annual warnings, the same problems persist. This year, decide to make your holiday event drama free in every possible sense.

The Two Basics You Must Understand About Your Liability as a Host

• Make it optional, if attendance is required your liability increases and this should be a reward, not a hostage situation for those who attend. Make this explicit in your language and invitation notices. Do not harass anyone who does not attend.

• Your practice is going to be held liable for everything onsite and off that's related to the party because it is always going to be the deepest pocket, so watch these details.

My experience is that 90 percent of people are good and just want to get along, do a good job and succeed on their merits.  About 5 percent are "bad" and always want to start a problem and another 5 percent are always looking to be a victim. Manage to this bottom 10 percent, especially in the current contentious political and social climate.  This year in particular having something for them to do besides drink and argue is not only going to provide them some much needed fun and distraction, it's going to help keep the peace.

Consider ways to keep guests busy that all attendees, including those with physical limits and religious sensitivities, can safely participate in. Avoid games that are overly physical, controversial or which facilitate inappropriate speech and behavior like hanging Mistletoe, playing games like Cards against Humanity, and drinking games, which certain specialties really seem to love. Anything that's overtly religious or political is a bad idea given that issues of real or perceived hostility and bias motivate many employment related lawsuits.

Feed Your Guests and Don't Overserve. The majority of the issues we have seen over the years including fights, accidents, slip and falls and even sexual assaults have been related to alcohol consumption.  Limit what you serve and have a system in place that prevents unlimited consumption, like drink tickets, a bartender, etc. If you serve alcohol, consider food service mandatory. It slows their drinking down and keeps them busy so that they don't just drink until they are full.

Consider Budgeting For Transport. Consider offering any employee that feels impaired free transport home by cab or Uber, this applies to you as well. The minor costs incurred are always well spent on risk management to avoid an accident or arrest. We've seen both practice owners and office managers get DUIs in the past in addition to other employees.

Remind Your Guests That It's A Professional Event. All codes of language,  conduct, sexual harassment and other rules in your employment policy manual  that control possible workplace claims of bias and discrimination always apply and should be enforced.

Have a Hall Monitor. There should be an owner or manager in attendance who enforces these standards and their conduct should set the tone and be exemplary.  This helps prevent any claim that someone with a position of authority over others in attendance may have pressured or intimidated them into participating or prohibited them from objecting.

Insure Adequately. You should have high limits of general liability and workers comp coverage, make sure you have appropriate limits of both as well an EPLI policy  in place in the event of an exposure.

Consider Dress Code Rules. Look for ways to proactively limit inappropriate conduct, dress or behavior. A holiday party isn't the best place to, for instance, show off your banned political t-shirt collection.

Consider An Offsite Venue. You have several different kinds of "premises liability" if you do it at the office including personal injury, data breach, and exposure to theft by having unscreened delivery people and guests that may have access to your computers, drugs, and patient records. Using an offsite venue helps pass some of that liability to someone else by both relocating the party and keeping your office free of those exposures. We've seen liability when a drug locker was pilfered, when items were stolen by guests or vendors and when drunk guests have fallen down or been assaulted in or outside the office, as just a few basic examples.

Finally, enjoy your team and success with gratitude. These tips are meant to make sure you have a good time, not to keep you or your most valuable assets, your employees, from having one. Happy Thanksgiving!

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