Holiday celebrations: Much to lose from booze

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

The holidays are approaching once again and, while the actual holidays aren’t until the end of December, the season of parties and celebration is beginning now. Many employers acknowledge the season by holding parties for employees to celebrate the season and year-end.

Work parties can take various forms — a friendly gathering in the office, departments going out for lunch together or a more formal event at a facility outside the workplace. While the intention of these festive occasions is for everyone to enjoy themselves, there’s no doubt employers have to be careful.

I discussed the level of liability employers have for the actions of employees while working or using the employer’s equipment in a previous blog, but what about after hours when the employee is on her own? Normally, what an employee does on her own time isn’t of consequence, but this changes if the employee has had some drinks at an employer-thrown party.

If alcohol is served at a work party, it makes sense the employer, as the organizer, should have some responsibility towards the guests. That comes with territory when serving alcohol at events. Licensed establishments such as bars have a responsibility to cut off patrons who’ve had too much to drink and prevent them from driving, if possible. Employers hosting a party with alcohol have the same responsibility, not just to protect the public, but as part of their duty of care to ensure the safety of employees in the workplace and, by extension, work-related functions.

However, it seems that duty extends outside of the party and beyond the parking lot, as a well-known case Ontario case from 2002 demonstrates. Linda Hunt, an employee of Sutton Group Realty, left a Sutton Group holiday party that had an open bar. She left the party and drove to a pub where she and other employees continued drinking. She then drove home from the pub while intoxicated and was seriously hurt in an accident.

Hunt successfully sued Sutton Group, as the court found the employer should have done more to protect her from driving drunk because of its duty of care to keep its employees safe. What should be chilling to employers about this case is that Sutton Group seemed to be held at least partly responsible for the employee’s continued drinking at a private establishment after the party. She was clearly drunk after she left the pub, but how drunk was she when she left the party?

Sutton Group left itself open to liability by allowing its employee to drive to a party with an open bar and then letting get behind the wheel. But what if it paid for a taxi to drive her home and then she drove to the pub later? Would it still be liable because she was intoxicated on alcohol it served her? What if an employee committed an offence at another location after the party, such as sexual assault, while drunk on alcohol served at a work party?

Serving alcohol does open up certain responsibilities and liabilities, which are further complicated by the duty of care that comes from the employer/employee relationship. As the holiday party season kicks in, it might be the safest to avoid alcohol altogether at company functions, even if it might seem to go against popular opinion.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today. For more information, visit

What are your thoughts about alcohol and employer-sponsored holiday parties? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

Latest stories