The end of alcohol at corporate events? (Editorial)

It’s one of those news stories that dominate water-cooler conversations and radio talk shows for days. One that also sent a collective shiver down employers’ spines.

When an Ontario judge awarded Linda Hunt $281,000 after finding her employer partially responsible for a car crash she caused while driving drunk following an office party in 1994, prohibition at corporate events became the question on employers’ minds.

Hunt worked as a part-time receptionist with regular hours at Sutton Group Incentive Reality in Barrie, Ont. The employer held a Christmas party in the afternoon with a free bar. Hunt, then 44, was expected to answer phones during the party and clean-up afterwards, but was able to consume twice the legal alcohol limit for driving before leaving the party, the court determined. Halfway through the party her boss had noticed she was getting drunk and offered to call her common-law husband to arrange a lift. She declined the offer, as well as a free cab, and instead went to a pub for dinner and more drinks. Then she got in her car to drive home in a winter storm. She crashed into another vehicle and sustained head injuries and now has trouble functioning.

The court found her employer did not fulfil its duty to safeguard her from harm — specifically, “a duty to make sure she would not enter into such a state of intoxication while on its premises and on duty so as to interfere with her ability to safely drive home afterwards.” Knowing Hunt had to drive a substantial distance at night during a storm compounded that duty, the court noted. But, the court also recognized Hunt’s own responsibility for the crash.

The court found Hunt 75 per cent responsible, with Sutton Group and the pub Hunt went to after the party sharing 25 per cent responsibility amounting to $281,229 in damages. No word yet on an appeal.

Reaction to the case has included advice from the legal community regarding how to host an event with alcohol (offer cabs, watch the bar and make it cash, take keys away, and even have staff sign waivers), as well as eliminating alcohol at company events all together. There has also been negative public reaction relaying a sense that Hunt was solely responsible for driving drunk.

So should you serve alcohol at a company event?

Sometimes the decision is easier to make than others. It wouldn’t hurt to take a look at alcohol consumption at company picnics and during corporate-sponsored baseball games. Too many company teams start the game with a full cooler and end up at the local pub. And getting rid of those trendy beer fridges hip dotcoms have made famous is certainly a good idea. But what about dinner events and parties?

Drinking is the source of many personal tragedies, but the reality is that it is also an indulgence that will remain part of Canadian society.

The Hunt case is an example of individual rights threatening community rights, and this is where reacting to the case by banning alcohol erodes everyone’s freedom.

Employers will be forgiven if they take that route — better safe than sorry. But still…

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