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NOV 22, 2016 | BY AMANDA LILLIS

The holidays are here, and if you are one of the millions of Americans who will be hosting a gathering of friends and family this holiday season, your party to-do list is likely a mile long already.

To ease the burden, you might consider turning to outside vendors to help with party logistics. From catering and valet to bartenders and decorators, having an extra set of arms and legs can go a long way to ensure your holiday party goes off without a hitch. But between deciding on the menu and going over decorations, it’s understandable why thinking through your related personal liability exposure isn’t top of mind.

Unfortunately, while personal liability doesn’t exactly excite much holiday cheer, overlooking such exposures can put you, your family and your assets at risk. To ensure a joyous — and safe — holiday season, here are four guidelines you should follow when engaging with vendors to reduce your liability exposure.

1. Cover the basics

Hiring a third-party vendor can have significant upsides, but there are related exposures you should be aware of before moving forward with an engagement. To mitigate certain exposures, start by verifying that the vendor — regardless of function — is licensed, bonded and insured.

Next, go the extra step to inquire about the specifics of their insurance coverage. Who is their carrier? Do they have adequate coverage and what are their policy limits? While references likely can’t speak to a vendor’s specific insurance coverage, connecting with previous hosts or employers is a great way to understand how a vendor will respond in a potential crisis.

Signed contract

Once you’ve settled on a vendor, always obtain a signed contract that outlines the functions and services the vendor will provide. Ensure the contract clearly states the time and date services will be rendered. Most importantly, verify that the contract includes a hold harmless clause. In the event of a vendor-related accident or injury, this clause certifies that as a host, you are not responsible for related damages.

Hiring a vendor for your holiday party is supposed to make your life easier, not more complicated. In the event that contract negotiations get complex or confusing, consider hiring an attorney to assist in the negotiation and creation of a vendor services contract. Doing so will not only allow you to get back to the more exciting party planning components, but ensure that the contract is ironclad.

2. Serve alcoholic beverages with caution

Ensuring that a vendor is insured and inking a contract are fundamental for any vendor hired for a party or event. However, there are additional risks and related best practices to consider based on the specific services they will be providing.

Related: Don’t fall victim to a crime this holiday season

Bartenders or catering staff that will be serving alcohol, for example, pose specific liability risks that require individualized attention. To begin, you should only hire a bartending or catering service that insures its employees against liquor-related liabilities.

Don’t negate personal liability coverage

Most importantly, let the bartender do his or her job. While it might seem frivolous to insist that a bartender cards a neighbor’s child who you know is of age (but might appear to be under 21), failing to do so can negate certain personal liability coverages. For the same reason, let the bartender pour all drinks. Hosts should never mix or serve alcohol to guests.

Finally, it goes without saying that any guest who appears to be intoxicated should be cut off. While you should always keep an eye out, hosting a party requires attention to be split between entertaining guests and ensuring that the party runs smoothly. In other words, you likely don’t have time to monitor guests’ alcohol consumption. Consider appointing a trusted friend or party attendee to do so in your place.

3. Create a parking plan

Hiring a valet service or parking attendants can make an event more enjoyable for guests and minimize collisions on your property, prevent blocking of nearby roads, and allow for organized and safe entries and departures. But failing to provide specific instructions and an organized plan to valet vendors can cause more harm than good.

Related: Are all those shiny new toys covered?

Once you’ve identified that the vendor is properly licensed and have a contract in place, consult with the valet to create such a parking plan. Confirming that the plan complies with local zoning ordinances and verifying whether you need to obtain special permits is an important piece of the puzzle. Failing to do so means you could face various fines and fees.

Slips, trips & falls

Once guests have handed their car over to the valet, you’re not out of the clear. In fact, failing to have a clear and accessible path from your driveway to the entrance is where significant liability risks exist. To prevent slips, trips and falls — especially in the winter months — be sure to:

  • Clear walkways and stairs of any ice or snow. Salting or sanding pathways to prevent snow or ice accumulation during the party is also advisable.
  • Remove planters, yard items and bikes. While these might be highly visible in the day, they can be hard to see at night.
  • Add additional light, either via outdoor lamps or by switching on all exterior porch lights.
  • Post signs at the top and bottom of a staircase cautioning guests to watch their step. Note if there are any loose bricks or steps guests should look out for (ideally, you’ll want to fix this before guests even arrive!

4. Decorate with care

Establishing the right ambience can make or break a party. To ensure the right balance is achieved, many holiday hosts will hire a decorator. Unfortunately, one misplaced holiday wreath can result in a significant fire risk, in turn increasing your liability exposure.

When working with a decorator, it’s important to first walk them through your home and point out where people will be congregating. Knowing where people will and won’t be standing can help decorators determine the appropriate decorations. Candles, for instance, can easily be knocked over and result in a fire, so keeping them out of high-trafficked area is always a good idea.

Avoid electrical overloads

Calling out the various electrical outlets around the room when doing a walk-through with a decorator can help avoid electrical overloads, which can cause a power surge and potentially result in a fire. On a similar note, while it can be tempting to hide electrical wires under rugs and furniture, doing so may lead to an increased fire risk. But even when evaluating how to reroute wires to an electrical outlet, be sure to keep them away from heat sources. Err on the side of caution by wrapping any exposed wires in heat-shrink tubing.

No matter what specific holiday you celebrate, the holiday season is about spending time with friends and family. For those that will be hosting a gathering, take a few minutes to think through your personal liability exposure. You might just find it will elicit some unexpected holiday cheer.

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