Playing Santa gets doctors sued: Medical office holiday party liability

The holiday party season traditionally starts next week, right after Thanksgiving. Consider what your medical practice should and should not be doing at the office party to avoid liability.

Despite the repeated warnings from myself and others, we inevitably get calls in the early part of next year from clients wanting advice about a problem that occurred and others calling too late to do anything about it. Here are ten simple safety tips.

It’s an “office” party, so everyone needs to behave like it.  Standards of professional language, conduct, sexual harassment, and other rules in your employment policy manual  that control possible workplace claims of bias and discrimination all still apply to everyone. This includes owners and managers with positions of authority over guests. You do not want guests feeling pressured into participating in or prohibited from objecting to party activities.

It really is optional. Never make it a required event and do not penalize, harass, or ostracize those who don’t want to attend. The optional nature of the event should be explicit in all discussion or written materials around the event.

Be properly insured. This means having general liability insurance, an EPLI policy  (in case of an employment law exposure), and worker’s comp insurance at appropriate high limits. This means seven figurepolicy limits, not just an insufficient $50K rider on your medical malpractice policy that shares limits of other coverage.

Avoid empty stomachs. The vast majority of accidents, assaults, and inappropriate behavior at office parties are alcohol related, so the best advice is not to serve alcohol. If you are going to serve alcohol, consider food service required. This not only helps keep them full so they drink less, but keeps them busy and helps them avoid ‘drinking their dinner”.

There needs to be a bartender.  Since many guests and hosts do expect drink service as part of a holiday party, consider the following steps if you’re planning to do so:

  • Limit the amount of alcohol or number of drinks any one guest can consume by using drink tickets or limiting hosted drink service to a specific time.
  • Consider serving only beer, wine, and low alcohol content mixed drinks. Shots are always a bad idea in this context.
  • Avoid having a table covered with bottles of hard liquor with no one watching or serving. This is an invitation for heavier drinkers to take and offer shots.
  • Equally enforce rules about anyone appearing intoxicated being “cut-off” and make this known to all guests in advance.

Strongly offer judgment-free help getting home. Employees can be gently reminded that if impaired they will be provided cost and judgment-free transport by taxi, Uber, etc. For bigger group events, commercial services like The Driver Providerwill get people and their cars home or provide group transport to and from offsite events. Paying for this safety measure is always cheaper than any single exposure you may incur.

Enforce a dress code. While I’m not suggesting that you make your guests wear scrubs or uniforms, common sense professional standards that prohibit clothing that’s revealing, sexual, offensive, inflammatory, etc. should be uniformly applied. Make this clear beforehand. There are, as just one example, many graphic Christmas and Hanukkah sweaters on the market, as well as holiday-themed political items.

Include everyone. Regardless of whether you call it a “Christmas” party or something else, avoiding anything that’s overtly religious or political is a good idea given that issues of real or perceived hostility or bias cause many employment related lawsuits. This is especially true in the context of the socially and politically-charged state we are in after the elections and given the current level of inflammatory political rhetoric. This is the not the day for it.

Games and activities need to be appropriate. Reject games and activities that are overly physical, sexual, controversial or which could include inappropriate speech and behavior. Real examples include hanging mistletoe, playing Cards Against Humanity, and drinking games. Instead, plan office appropriate ways to entertain guests that everyone can safely participate in, including those with physical limits and religious sensitivities.

Delegate the liability. A number of organized activities, such as sporting events, comedy clubs, and art and wine parties, are well-received alternatives to office parties. Hosting your party away from the office may help limit liability and protect your office from strangers and other exposures, like a records breach.