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Alex Myers

Alex Myers of Myers & Associates will take over the legal advice column "Minding Your Business." He specializes in business law.

Dear Alex:

Our company has historically held an annual holiday party, but this year our office manager is concerned about the potential liability of serving alcohol to our guests and is thinking about canceling the party.

Is this a valid concern, and should we cancel the party?

Holiday parties are a fun and important tradition for businesses. Parties can be a great way to show gratitude to employees, to build employee morale, loyalty and camaraderie, and to offer everyone in the company an opportunity to revel in the joy of the season.

Alcohol is frequently served at holiday parties, and for many it is an important part of the holiday tradition. Unfortunately, sometimes guests can overindulge, and despite the host’s best efforts, guests may even drink and drive.

California is one of only a few states that offers protection to private social hosts from liability for the acts of their intoxicated guests. In most states, the host of a party could be liable for an intoxicated guest who causes injuries to others.

In California, however, the legislature enacted laws to protect private social hosts from liability for the actions of their guests in most circumstances. There are certain circumstances in which social hosts are not given liability protection, and in all circumstances, serving alcohol responsibly is an obligation that every social host should take very seriously.

Here are three things to keep in mind when planning a company holiday party:

1. Do not serve drinks to drunken people.

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Bars and restaurants that serve drinks to drunken people can be guilty of a misdemeanor. Social hosts do not face criminal implications for providing drinks to an intoxicated person, but hosts have a social responsibility to help prevent accidents or injury to guests, property, and others.

2. Do not allow anyone under the age of 21 to drink.

The age of 21 is not only the minimum legal age for a person to drink, but California’s social host liability protections do not extend to adults who furnish alcohol to underage drinkers. If an underage person is injured, causes injury to another, or worse, the adults responsible for serving the minor may be held personally responsible for the resulting harm.

3. If you are a social host, do not charge admission or ask your guests to “chip in” to help cover the costs.

Bars, restaurants and other licensees are permitted to charge for drinks, but those licensees are held to a different standard of liability than private social hosts. Social host liability protection may not extend to private social hosts who ask guests to chip in or pay for their drinks.

Court cases in California have held that charging for attendance at a party turned the party into a de facto “nightclub,” and the party host was not afforded the typical social host liability protection.

Most importantly, please be safe and make responsible decisions this holiday season.

Many of the local car services and AAA will offer special promotions during the holidays, and taxis or on-demand car services are always available (even some of the local businesses have apps to call for on-demand cars).

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Alex Myers is a business attorney with Myers & Associates in Napa. Reach him at alex@myers-associates.com or 707-257-1185. The information provided in this column is not intended as legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. The information is not a comprehensive analysis of the law — if you need legal advice, contact an attorney.

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