Holiday Parties Can Lead to Lawsuit Nightmares

November 29, 2001

Colorful assertions about what happened at the annual holiday office party may be good banter for the water cooler, but they may also provide fodder for a lawsuit that could bankrupt a company, according to James A. Young, a litigator and managing shareholder of Christie Pabarue Mortensen & Young. The Philadelphia-based law firm has gained a national reputation in insurance and defense litigation, successfully defending claims seeking tens of millions of dollars.

“Most people think about too much alcohol or sexual harassment this time of year, but security should also be a concern, especially in light of recent events,” Young said. “Those three things have tremendous jury appeal.” For those who take things lightly, Young warns mounting a defense against such claims can be serious: “These are very difficult cases, particularly in this environment.”

Every company should have a personnel manual that covers such issues, Young pointed out, and distributing specific memorandi detailing prohibited behavior is another good recommendation. “It’s also a good idea to tell employees not to be offended if you tell them to stop drinking or halt some other activity,” Young continued. “The point is, you’ve got to tell them you will be on guard, and so should they.”

It’s also a good idea to put what behavior you expect in writing and appoint someone – or more than one – to police company parties and events. “Someone has to be the designated person in charge of keeping an eye open for trouble,” Young said. “That’s also true because security is the new thing this year. Everyone should check security systems both in their office areas and at outside events before the need for them arises.”

Another common mistake is not checking your insurance policies for adequate coverage before the party begins. “Most people don’t think about this one very much, but reviewing your insurance coverage to ensure it matches your exposure risk is a necessity,” Young said. “You have to ask ‘what if’ questions about employee liability coverage and what responsibility you might have in an alcohol-related incident, for example.”

Young points out law enforcement has engaged in a more liberal interpretation of statutes governing public safety in recent years, partly to bring such issues to the attention of the public. Business owners should be more receptive too. “If someone says, hey, the security in our building is terrible, you’d be wise to listen and do something about it,” Young added. “If it’s your event or your office, make sure everyone is protected -including you.”

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