Protect your business against liability issues with holiday parties.

It’s that time of year again when we open our homes and our businesses to friends, family and colleagues to celebrate the holidays.  But when big crowds of people mix with food and drink, the potential for personal injury and legal liabilities dramatically increases. 

If you are a business owner, there are many legal issues you should be aware of, if you are planning to host a party or special event for your customers and your staff.  In this article, we’ll talk about common sense best practice, and how you can take the right steps to protect your guests and employees from injury and reduce your risk for civil liability and accidental injuries.

Impaired Driving and Intoxication: Understanding Business Owner Liability

As a business owner, during the holiday season we understand that you want to show appreciation to your hard-working employees; that usually means a hosted Christmas party or gathering either on your premises or at a local venue. But the laws for personal injury apply to any event you may be hosting; from an information session to a tradeshow or conference event.

If you serve alcohol at the event, and it is located at your business location (office party) you, as the business owner, have a responsibility to take every possible step to ensure the safety of your guests.   If the employee, contractor or guest is injured as a result of negligence on the property (a trip and fall instance, or similar scenario) you are legally responsible for that injury, according to State law.

But doesn’t the individual have a private legal responsibility to care for their own well being and use judgement to determine how much alcohol they consume?  Afterall, if your employee engaged in impaired driving on their own time, doesn’t that responsibility lie with the individual for making that choice? 

Bars and restaurants who are licensed vendors of alcoholic beverages, can be held liable, but social hosts cannot. This is an important designation in Oklahoma law that helps protect hosts (including private citizens who invite guests to celebrate). 

Licensed liquor vendors are required to monitor how they dispense alcohol to their customers.  If they make a poor judgement and continue to serve an individual who is clearly intoxicated, or someone who is mentally incapacitated, they can be sued in civil court for loss related to injuries, including:

  • Compensation for medical bills
  • Reimbursement for property damage
  • Lost wages and / or benefits if the injured individual is unable to work
  • Pain and suffering

The Oklahoma damages cap (passed in 2011) does limit non-economic damages in civil injury cases to $350,000.  This cap however does not include cost of medical care and / or lost income as a result of the injury.

The statue of limitations for a personal injury case in Oklahoma is two years from the date of the injury incident, with few exceptions.  For more information about the Oklahoma statute of limitations for personal injury cases, consult Title 12, Ch. 3, Sec. 95 of the Oklahoma legal code.

What is ‘Shared Fault’ and Personal Responsibility for Injury and Liability?

The Oklahoma legal system acknowledges that in some personal injury cases, the individual who was injured is also responsible, in part and through their conduct, for the resultant injury.  This is referred to as “Shared Fault” or comparative fault, in personal injury cases in our State.

Let’s say for example, you are a restaurant business owner, and an individual trip and falls and injures themselves on a carpet that you have placed by the door.  If the injured party was running or acting in a boisterous way that contributed to their fall incident, they may be entitled to a reduced amount of damages, due to their own personal negligence that contributed to the injury.

In this example, the court may decide that the injured was 50% responsible for the fall incident, as they were behaving in a reckless manner that caused the injury.  The business owner may be judged as 50% responsible, for the mat or rug in their establishment, which caused the fall incident.   Oklahoma courts will apply the modified comparative fault rule, and commercial insurers make this a key point in the defense of business owners involved in an injury claim.

Harassment and Misconduct at Business Parties or Events

Whether you are hosting an event for your employees onsite or at a different location or venue, the rules of conduct regarding harassment still apply. Even outside of business hours.  Harassment is not limited to sexually offensive or motivated behaviors in Oklahoma and are outlined in the “Rules Concerning the Individual Conduct of Employees” or OP-110214, which were amended in April 2019.

Inappropriate conduct in the office or workplace, or at an employer sponsored event that constitute harassment can include (but are not limited to):

  • Use of demeaning terms or epithets
  • Indecent gestures, and crude language
  • Jokes regarding race, sex, disability etc.
  • Discussion of sexual activities
  • Hostile or threatening statements or physical conduct

The employer and managing or supervisory team may not be the source of harassment, as it may occur from one employee to another. However, the employer has a legal obligation to intervene in the situation, correct and / or provide disciplinary measures to register the complaint and take action.  Failing to do so can violate employee protections and state law regarding workplace safety and conduct.

Employers should always make sure that they have a clear outline of expectations and legal requirements, and a code of conduct for their employees that is acknowledged by every member of your team.  We recommend employers include this in a written form to each employee, as a term of employment.

Best Practice Advice for Oklahoma Business Owners

If you are planning a business event, plan to have an incident free and safe occasion with these tips from our legal team at Compton Law Firm.  If you have any questions regarding your liability for an upcoming hosted event, contact us to schedule a legal consultation.  Our Attorneys will review your risk factors and provide legal recommendations to help limit your liability, with best practice advice.

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