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Halloween Liability Scares for Doctors


Doctors and practice managers must be aware of seasonal risks to avoid their medical practice becoming a little shop of horrors.

Over the next few weeks, many doctor's offices will decorate their offices for Halloween and some may be dressing up to allow staff and patients to participate in the fun. Make sure these issues are handled with an eye towards your professional risk management and a discerning eye.

Decorations and Premises Liability

Halloween decorations are becoming increasingly ornate, complex, and graphic. We are beyond the safe era of spiders, jack-o lanterns, black cats, ghosts, and witches. As an employer you must keep the following issues in mind. If some of these sound far-fetched or obvious, you may want to take a stroll through a couple of Halloween stores to see what is currently offered so you can set some standards and ground rules. Remember that even if you are delegating approval and purchase of these items to someone else, the liability is still ultimately always yours.

•Beware of basic premises liability issues and avoid anything that creates new active safety risks like poking, tripping, electrocuting or falling on top of someone, or passive risks, like obscuring dangers or blocking exits, cameras and other safety equipment.

•Anything excessively violent, bloody or startling should be a red flag. If that neat new animated vampire decoration makes your victims run, jump and scream, consider the possible effect on the single most fragile patient or visitor at your practice, both mentally and physically, including décor with lighting that could trigger an epileptic.

Employment Law Horrors

Employment law exposures take many forms and the holidays present their own unique risks. Religious (or anti-religious, i.e. satanic), political themed decorations, costumes or those that could be considered discriminatory, mocking or hostile of race, sex or sexual identity are strictly off limits.

If your office allows or encourages employees to dress up for Halloween make sure they know it is optional and that anyone who doesn't wish to (or who cannot do so due to their religious beliefs, physical ability, or any other subjective grounds) is not penalized or harassed.

Many adult men's and women's costumes available at your neighborhood Halloween store are highly sexualized or otherwise wholly inappropriate on the other grounds detailed above. Inform all employees in advance that any costume deemed inappropriate will need to be removed or changed at management's discretion. Provide your staff with clear guidelines and remind them that all other usual workplace policies and standards of behavior still apply and that their costume must not prevent or reduce their usual performance and professional duties.

Be aware that taste and common sense are subjective and vary widely. A homogenous group that has a certain pattern of communication and sense of humor may take certain things for granted or deem acceptable what a new employee or a patient, may not. A misstep in this area can easily become a big deal in the age of social media and any accusation of inappropriate or discriminatory conduct will likely be documented and shared quickly, turning a simple children's holiday into a business crisis, all the best advice aside. For instance, a picture of your office manager in some offensive racial stereo-type like blackface, could be devastating to your business reputation.

Finally, if your celebration goes beyond a dress up day and involves an actual party, please refer to the holiday party guidelines I've previously provided that include having well defined and enforced policies, being insured, making it optional and controlling alcohol, activities and behavior to protect all involved, including yourself.  

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