The Legalities of the Office Happy Hour

You’re likely more liable than you realize

Back Web Only Oct 9, 2015 By Coral Henning

As the owner of a business, about once per month I would like to close the office early and have an office happy hour that will be used as team building for my employees. These happy hours will be during normal working hours. As an employer, what are the liability concerns?

One of the many factors that may come into play when determining liability is whether employees were required to attend, expected to attend, or free to not attend.  Boynton v McKales (1956) 139 CA2d 777 saw the employer held liable when an intoxicated employee collided with the plaintiff while driving home from a company banquet. Since the banquet was intended to benefit the employer, and employees’ attendance was expected, the employee’s travel was not with the “going-and-coming rule.”

Under the going-and-coming rule (see Ducey v Argo Sales Co. (1979) 25 C3d 707), an employee is deemed outside of the scope of employment during the ordinary commute to or from work. There are a few exceptions to the this rule, including an exception for social functions.

Attendance at a social function, although not an official duty of the employee, may come under the “special errand rule” if attendance was connected to employment and intended to benefit the employer requesting or expecting employee attendance. However, if an employer is truly a social host not expecting attendance, California Civil Code §1714(c) provides a shield of liability.

Having an office happy hour where attendance is required during working hours increases your liability. When alcohol is involved, it opens up employers to any harassment claims, injuries resulting from violence or any accident liability that can occur when alcohol is involved. The nature of the event will be determined by the specific facts of the particular case.

To prevent concerns and liability, you may want to consider moving the location of the office team-building events to a local coffee house. At the very least, consider alternating between two locations. However, keep in mind that even without involving alcohol you may still be held liable.