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The law firm of Sharpless & Stavola, P.A. provides top quality, aggressive legal representation to individuals and businesses throughout North Carolina. A core practice area of the firm is employment litigation, where our attorneys regularly represent parties in disputes arising from all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. Employment issues frequently litigated by the firm include claims of discriminatory hiring and employment practices, sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful discharge, wage and hour violations, breach of contract and no-compete covenants, and employee benefits litigation. In addition to confronting claims of traditional employment discrimination, the firm represents parties with respect to statutory rights and obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.

On behalf of our clients, we regularly appear in all North Carolina state and federal courts and administrative agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the North Carolina Department of Labor, and the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

Sharpless & Stavola, P.A. is a Martindale-Hubbell “AV” rated law firm. Please review the firm’s webpage for additional information, including individual attorney profiles. The firm's telephone number is 336-333-6400.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – for Social Host Alcohol Liability


So what could the holiday season possibly have to do with North Carolina employment law?  Unfortunately, quite a lot.  Potential employer liability issues abound with year-end parties, where employees are encouraged to participate in festivities free of the usual work place rules, constraints, and inhibitions.  Add to the relaxed environment a free flow of alcohol, and the risk of liability arising from various employee indiscretions increases exponentially.  Much has been written, for example, about the potential for sexual harassment claims to arise from such circumstances.

Another issue that employers and individuals frequently overlook is the potential for social host liability for alcohol related motor vehicle accidents.  Like many jurisdictions, North Carolina law allows persons injured by drunk drivers to sue host providers of alcohol in certain situations.  Under North Carolina’s dram shop statute, for example, a person or entity who furnishes alcohol to a minor can be sued by victims of motor vehicle accidents later caused by the underage or intoxicated driver.  North Carolina statute also prohibits the sale or giving of alcohol to a noticeably intoxicated person.  North Carolina case law also recognizes negligence based theories under which persons can be assessed with tort liability for injuries causes by a drunk driver.

With these principles in mind, consider the typical holiday party.  Often held at a management member’s home, a standard staple is a bar, where courtesy alcoholic beverages are served.  Employees are frequently invited to bring guests, which opens the possibility for underage dates, siblings, student interns, and other guests.  What would normally be considered inappropriate activity is frequently accepted.  Indeed, many people view boisterous activity as directly related to the success of the party.  Conduct that would otherwise be deemed unprofessional and unacceptable is typically expected and, to some extent, welcomed as employees are encouraged to “blow off steam” and build camaraderie.  All too often, guests are served alcohol beyond the point of inebriation and permitted to drive home.

What are some good strategies for minimizing the risk in this area?  Consider the following:

  • Hire a professional bartender, one who is trained to notice signs of intoxication.
  • In addition to beverages, serve food, which slows the absorption of alcohol and, hopefully, reduces the amount of alcohol consumed.
  • Offer soft drinks as well as alcohol.  With surprising frequency, holiday parties overlook soft drinks and/or make them less available to attendees.  Offer a variety of soft drinks so that guests do not feel pressured into drinking alcohol.
  • Have one or more designated drivers available.  Instruct these persons to monitor the crowd for potential problems and to take the initiative in offering rides to suspect individuals.
  • Before the party, make it known that employees are expected to behave responsibly during the party.
These same principles apply to private parties hosted by individuals.   

Finally, if you have questions about social host liability, or if you are confronting legal issues as a result of an alcohol related accident, be sure to consult attorneys experienced in this important aspect of North Carolina law.

2 comments:

  1. Money goes a long way to avoid legal liability like this, I think we would all love to hire a professional bartender if having such a gathering.

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    1. While expenses have to be considered, hourly rate bartenders really aren't that expensive. For a company party, I would not hesitate to incur the modest charge in an effort to prevent one of these inherently nasty and potentially costly suits.

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