Let’s Talk Turkey about Holiday Parties

With Thanksgiving less than a week away, employers know several things are about to happen: employees will all want time off at the same time, religious holidays start popping up, and the pressure is on for year-end bonuses. And let’s not forget the legendary office party. That’s first on our list.

Many employers want to know if they should have alcohol at their holiday parties. Isn’t there too much liability under Dram Shop laws for accidents caused by drunk guests/employees? Here’s what the Oklahoma courts say:

A client was a guest at a holiday party hosted by a construction company at the company’s Tulsa offices. A caterer, who also had a restaurant, provided the food, the liquor, and the bartenders. Guests were not charged for the drinks; that cost was absorbed by the construction company.

Shortly after leaving the holiday party, a guest caused an automobile accident. The guest was killed and others were seriously injured. The construction company and the caterer were sued for serving drinks to an intoxicated person. The caterer was considered a “tavern owner” and the question was whether it or their employees served alcohol to a “noticeably intoxicated person.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the caterer was a “commercial vendor for on-premises consumption of alcohol” and the caterer alone had the duty to “exercise reasonable care in selling or furnishing liquor to persons who by previous intoxication may lack full capacity or self-control to operate a motor vehicle and who may subsequently injure a third party.” The construction company was not liable because it was not a commercial seller of alcohol.

That’s the legal answer. But morally, employers should be conscious of any guest who appears intoxicated. There is no shame in calling a cab, or these days, an Uber or a Lyft.

In a more recent case, a fraternity allegedly provided alcohol to an underaged pledge who then assaulted a guest at a fraternity house party. The plaintiff alleged the fraternity had been remiss in not preventing the pledge from being drunk and not educating him on university rules regarding underage drinking. Even after all of these creative arguments were made, the court still found the fraternity could not be liable because they were a social host and not a commercial vendor of alcoholic beverages.

Sometimes employers think it’s better to charge for the drinks at a party and this will relieve them of liability. This does not appear to matter under Oklahoma law. At best, charging for alcohol may make an employee or a guest think twice before spending more of their own money on another drink. Employers’ goal is to stay a social host and avoid any inference that they are a commercial host. That being said, don’t forget it’s your party and you can serve or not serve whomever you want.

This article first appeared in The Journal Record on November 18, 2022, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.


Associated People:

Madalene A.B. Witterholt

Practice Area:

Labor & Employment