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Party hosts, take note: the Grinch lurks at holiday parties

The holiday season is the time to eat, drink and be wary.
Because merrymaking usually involves spirits, hot toddies, and some sort of bubbly, some unprepared party hosts are finding themselves having a less than jolly holiday because of liability issues such as “social host laws,” where individuals who serve alcohol may be found liable if a guest who was drinking is later involved in an accident.

“Most people don’t realize they could be held financially liable if someone who was drinking alcohol at their home or office party becomes involved in a car accident,” said Larry Taylor, account executive with Boyles, Moak, Brickell, Marchetti Insurance Inc. in Jackson.

In 2002, about half of all holiday traffic fatalities nationwide were alcohol-related. In Mississippi, alcohol-related deaths accounted for 37% of year-round traffic deaths, with a substantially higher percentage between Thanksgiving and January 2, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Obviously, travel increases during the holidays and so does alcohol intake,” said Danny Berry, executive director of Mississippi’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), “so there is a far greater danger during the holiday season.”

The venue of a holiday party and the availability of alcohol make a huge difference determining who is at fault if an accident occurs after a guest departs the scene, said Eric Elam, president of Elam Consulting Inc. of Jackson.

“If it’s held in someone’s home, the homeowners’ insurance policy will cover a slip-and-fall, but the standard limit is usually not very high,” said Taylor. “An umbrella liability policy would bridge the gap in case a disaster occurs. I’d especially recommend that for homeowners with six-figure incomes.”

Even though some hosts buy a special events policy for holiday parties, it’s a fairly rare occurrence, said Taylor.

“I don’t sell that many policies at this time of year to cover special events,” he said. “We’re invited to a Christmas party at the Jackson Country Club with a big assortment of higher-income insurance types and we should probably have a special events policy, but we probably won’t.”

Renters, warned Elam, typically have only bare minimum coverage, usually just enough to cover the loss of personal contents in the event of a disaster. Before hosting a major fete, they should consider increasing their coverage or adding an umbrella policy.

“I don’t see a tremendous amount of liability issues at home in a personal setting except serving liquor,” said Taylor. “If you’re serving alcohol, my advice is to have someone designated to marshal the intake of guests, and if someone is drinking too much, stop serving them. Then if they go from your party to XYZ bar, you’ve insulated yourself. However, there’s no limit to who can be tagged to an unfortunate event. They’ll look for whoever has insurance to be culpable.”

Businesses renting space for a holiday event should read the fine print, said Elam.

“There’s usually insurance language stipulated in the lease contract regarding liability and protection, as well as the premises,” he said. “Sometimes, that requires insurance coverage over what a normal business would purchase. They need to read the contract carefully because the host business will be called on to answer for it if something happens.”

Having open bars rather than cash bars leaves hosts more vulnerable, said Taylor.

“With a cash bar, people are digging into their pockets and regulating themselves,” he said.

If vendors are serving alcohol, make sure they have certificates of insurance, said Elam.

“Always make sure caterers are insured, too, in case anyone gets sick after eating the food,” he said.

To avoid the hassles related to serving alcohol, many companies are going to a strict no-alcohol policy, said Taylor.

“The companies want employees to have a good time, and to reward them for good year’s work, but they have to set liability limits,” he said.

It’s not only imbibing guests who can put a damper on the evening. Murphy’s Law is ripe during holiday parties, joked Elam.

“Party hosts should consider having security to ward off unwanted situations regarding ex-spouses, recently terminated employees and the like,” he said. “People tend to get real emotional around Christmastime.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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