December may bring more than holiday cheer for many Americans. A survey reveals that holiday parties in homes and offices may result in trips to the courtroom for some.
Commissioned by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell's lawyers.com, an online directory of attorneys nationwide, and conducted by Harris Interactive, the survey assessed vulnerability to common legal pitfalls during the holiday season.
Hosting a party at home or the office involves more than planning a menu
Nearly one in four adults do not know that a party host who serves alcohol to a clearly drunk guest may be legally responsible if that person goes on to hurt or kill someone in a car accident. Yet one in five adults will host or co-host a holiday party this year at which alcohol will be served.
"Most states have 'social host' laws, which hold party hosts liable in certain situations if their guests who drink cause serious car crashes," said Alan Kopit, legal editor of lawyers.com.
"Such hosts may unwittingly put themselves in legal hot water by not carefully monitoring their guests' intoxication levels, particularly when they get in their cars. A few precautionary minutes when planning parties can save the time, money and the heartache of the legal ramifications of a guest's crash," Kopit added.
Check your coat, but not your professionalism, at this year's office party
Holiday office parties pose additional legal risks, the survey also uncovered. Twenty-nine percent of adults have experienced or observed sexual advances between people who work together at such gatherings, more than at any other work event during the rest of the year, including those that occur after-hours, on weekends or at the office during the work day.
"An office party can be the site of a sexual harassment situation just as much as the office," Kopit said. "Many people view an office holiday party as a fun, carefree gathering of colleagues, during which normal professional expectations are relaxed. In fact, from a legal perspective, just the opposite is true."
According to Kopit, the responsibility to ensure legal safety at holiday parties falls under the purview of business owners. According to the survey, however, many businesses regularly fail to take necessary precautions. Just 16 percent of Americans surveyed say that policy and behavior expectations, including those involving sexual overtures among colleagues, have ever been distributed prior to any holiday office party they attended.
Moreover, only 12 percent have been at a holiday office party at which car keys were collected and returned only to sober drivers. Less than one in three have gone to a holiday office party at which taxi or designated driver service was provided to any employee who needed it.
"There's no reason a business shouldn't celebrate with its employees at the end of the year," Kopit said. "But anyone responsible for such an event should make sure the business, and those attending, are legally safe. Letting everyone attending explicitly know what behavior is prohibited – including that which is flirtatious or sexual -- can help remove sexual harassment problems.”
“Keeping employees from driving after drinking at the party reduces potential liability of the business, and helps ensure guests stay safe and healthy to enjoy the New Year," Kopit added. "If a business owner is in doubt about the proper procedures to put in place at their office party, he or she should discuss their options with an attorney."