This year, you are having not one but two holiday parties. You’ve even hired “Ho-Ho-Ho” catering to handle the food and beverages. Is that all there is to hosting a liability-free party? Of course not.
Let’s look at your two holiday parties.
Party 1, Cup O’Cheer, is your annual employee in-office luncheon. Party 2, Client Extravaganza, is also at the office starting at 6:00 p.m. What could possibly go wrong?
An employee slips and falls at the Cup O’Cheer and, the next thing you know, they are receiving $953.18/week in workers’ compensation payments. Meanwhile, another employee lodges a complaint of being “hit on” by one of your customers.
In Oklahoma, employers are responsible for injuries suffered by employees at any time they are engaged in conduct that is furthering their employer’s business. On the other hand, Oklahoma law says there is no employer liability if the employee is engaged in recreational or social activities purely for their own personal pleasure.
The Cup O’ Cheer party is most likely an event not within the course and scope of employment. Eating a free lunch is probably not in your employee’s job description. Traditionally, party-injured employees lobbying for workers’ compensation benefits have made arguments along the lines of “attendance was mandatory.” Be proactive, tell your managers to spread the word that the party is not mandatory, and be careful of party shop talk.
While an employer might think they should have the Cup O’Cheer luncheon somewhere with more of a “party” feel, location does not matter. Sam slips at the buffet and Cindy and Suzi have a shoving match. An employer’s defenses would include that this party was purely a social event. Other defenses could include the fact that Slippery Sam was intoxicated, and the Shoving Twins were merely involved in horseplay.
What about employees getting hurt at Party 2, the Client Extravaganza? After all, it is at their workplace and the party’s purpose is for enhancing customer goodwill. If employees are graded on customer sales/satisfaction, the party may be close to crossing the purely social line. Again, put out the word that attendance is voluntary and the party is not about work — it’s a social event. Discourage business talk. If an employee or customer has an accident at the party, provide immediate medical attention. Worry about liability later.
As if you hadn’t heard enough, now your best customer is chasing around your vice-president at the Client Extravaganza saying, “I want to make your dreams come true.” A different employee overhears this comment, corners your company president, and says, “I want to be your dream weaver.” Yes, Virginia, you have a problem. Even if it’s co-worker to co-worker, it’s still harassment. After the party, think seriously about discontinuing your relationship with the customer. Of course, regardless of whether the president complains, an investigation of the “dream weavers” must be made.
* This article first appeared in The Journal Record on December 2, 2022, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.