Employers Beware of Serving Alcohol

LEGAL GROUNDS — Why the Party’s Over For Some Employers

The San Francisco Chronicle Monday, January 8, 1996 ·
Page C1

By Reynolds Holding

Wine may be fine and liquor quicker but oh, the hangover from
lawsuits.

It’s the end of the office-party season, right about when some very
unlucky bosses discover they’ve been sued for their employees’
shenanigans at the holiday bash. Maybe somebody got drunk and slugged the
guy in accounting, dropped M&M’s down a colleague’s blouse or — God
forbid — killed a person in a car accident. These things happen, and
sometimes the employer who served the cocktails gets blamed.

The good news is that California law usually does not hold people
liable for serving alcohol, says employment law expert Jeffrey Wohl. But
there are exceptions:

— If you give drinks to obviously intoxicated minors — otherwise
known as kids — and they hurt themselves or others, you may be
responsible. And serving alcohol to anyone who is already drunk is a
misdemeanor in California.

— You can also get into trouble for providing a drunk driver with a
car. If the car injures someone, you may have to pay.

— If the drinking occurs at a business event, the boss can be held
responsible. Fortunately, most office parties are considered social
events. But a party can lose that distinction if employees are required
to attend. Their actions become on-the-job behavior — and the boss’s
problem.

The greatest danger for employers, though, is holiday sex harassment,
says Wohl.

“As the workforce keeps getting more diverse, employers have to
remember that what passes for fun and games for one person doesn’t
necessarily for others,” he said.

So how does the boss stay out of trouble?

Don’t hold the party at the office, don’t make people go, don’t serve
drinks to minors — and limit the amount of drinking.

And if you still want to get plastered, stay home.

Despite the risks, holiday office parties are more popular than ever.
In fact, the percentage of companies that give parties has grown rapidly
over the past five years, says executive search firm Battalia Winston
International.

Only 16 percent of 101 large companies surveyed gave big parties in
1990, while 66 percent allowed small departmental events. This year, 89
percent held big bashes, almost all of them paid for by the company.

But corporate gift-giving to workers and clients is way down. About 66
percent of the companies were not planning to give any gifts this year,
more than double last year’s figure.

So what’s with the Scrooge routine? “Gifts don’t build teams,” says
Battalia Winston President Dale Winston.

JUST ADD WATER

Don’t like your attorneys? Then grow your own.

Fed up with the lack of good patent attorneys, high-tech companies in
Silicon Valley are sending their engineers to law school — and getting
back legal experts who really know the business.

Hewlett-Packard has been doing it for about four years, and now has
three homegrown lawyers on staff and four in law school, says associate
general counsel Stephen Fox.

“Folks in-house know the client — the company as represented by
various managers and engineers — and with that comes considerable
efficiency,” Fox said.

Intel is also training its own lawyers, sending engineers to night
school at Santa Clara University Law School and letting them learn about
patents at one of the company’s outside law firms in Sunnyvale.

Employees-turned-attorneys have an advantage over firm-trained
colleagues because they are already comfortable with company culture. But
they sometimes fall short when it comes to communication — high-tech
talk does not go over well in court. Several engineers at Intel, for
example, have been forced to quit the legal program.

The big question: Will the homegrown movement spread to other areas of
law?

It’s possible, says AMD associate general counsel Mikio Ishimaru. He
worked with one engineer who went to law school and ended up doing all
sorts of legal work for the company.

But so far, it’s the dire need for patent attorneys that is forcing
companies to look inside.

“It’s gotten to the point where you don’t have much choice,” says
Ishimaru.

Cartoonists and publishers went bonkers a few months ago when the
state Board of Equalization announced that it would tax the sale of
cartoons to newspapers and other periodicals. But it looks like the
crisis is over.

The board’s committee on business taxes meets January 10, and it’s
sure to recommend some sort of sales-tax exemption for cartoons. From
there, passage of an official exemption is just a matter of time.

How can you tell?

Of the five board members, three — Dean Andal, Johan Klehs and
Kathleen Connell — say they are against the tax, and a majority is
enough to kill it. Brad Sherman also says the cartoonists “have made some
strong arguments.” Only Ernie Dronenberg seems to be holding out.

It was a great year for Bay Area securities lawyers, with high-tech
companies raising more money than ever through public offerings. So how
do the lucky lawyers who did the deals feel about the experience?

“It was pretty miserable,” said one to the Recorder, a legal
newspaper.

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© 1995 San Francisco Chronicle · All Rights
Reserved · All Unauthorized Duplication Prohibited

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