It's my party, so don't sue, get drunk or steal the silver

PERSONAL FINANCE

December 02, 2007

Your holiday bash is days away, and you're checking off the to-do list. You hired the caterer. Ordered the wine. Picked the music. Decked the halls.

But did you hide your jewelry? Or stash your bank statements?

Nearly 1 out of 4 holiday hosts conceal jewelry and sensitive papers from friends and family, according to a survey of 1,122 people last year by Chubb Group of Insurance Cos.

"They're not paranoid," says Chubb spokesman Mark Schussel. "It is smart." What's surprising is that more hosts don't take these precautions, he says.

We let our guard down during the holiday rush, Schussel says. We open our homes to strangers, either guests or hired help for the party, then leave valuables around that could be pocketed or broken. We forget to remove ice from the steps or other hazards that could injure partygoers. And we may not realize that we could be liable for the boorish or drunken behavior of guests.

This is not a Grinch-like recommendation not to throw a party. But it can't hurt to take a few steps to reduce the risk of party perils. Because once one of them happens, problems can last a lot longer than any hangover.

Ask Jeneba Ghatt.

The Chevy Chase lawyer and her husband used to throw big parties open to friends and friends of friends. "We learned our lesson" after a 2004 summer bash, Ghatt says.

Filed a claim

Ghatt says a woman she didn't know attended the party as a guest of someone else. The woman called the next day to say she slipped on the stairs while leaving, twisted both ankles and couldn't work, Ghatt says.

The woman filed a claim against Ghatt's homeowner's policy. Ghatt says she had some loose bricks in her steps, but doubts the woman's claim. The insurer settled.

But Ghatt's problems didn't end there. She and her husband had made a prior claim that year for a broken pipe, so they had two strikes against them. The insurer dropped the couple when it came time to renew their policy.

Their next insurer charged an annual premium of $2,400, more than three times what the couple paid previously. Ghatt says they are considered high-risk for three years, and their premiums remain high.

"It's three years of punishing me," she says.

So, before throwing a holiday party, consider these precautions:

Party-proof your house.

Lock up expensive jewelry and other valuables. Your homeowner's policy will cover you for theft, but usually up to $2,500 when it comes to jewelry. If your baubles are worth much more, take out additional coverage.

A homeowner's policy generally doesn't cover accidental breakage. So if you love that heirloom vase, don't leave it out in the open where someone can knock it over.

Put away papers.

Don't leave bank and credit-card statements lying around for identity thieves to spy. And it's not just financial papers that should be removed from sight. Many people post calendars on the refrigerator that list vacations or dental appointments, essentially advertising when no one will be at home, Schussel says.

Turn off computers. Lock or close the doors to rooms that aren't going to be used during the party.

Keep an eye on help and guests.

If you're hiring a cleaning crew or catering staff, ask the company whether it has conducted a background check on its employees. Make sure the company has insurance and the proper licenses, Schussel says.

If you employ a housekeeper or other staff year-round, you need to protect employees from sexual harassment from party guests.

Your guests would never do that? Think again. Larry Levy, owner of Biddle Street Catering & Events in Baltimore, says he must deal from time to time with guests making unwanted advances to his employees.

Not just men

Men aren't the only culprits. "Believe it or not, a lot of times it's the other way around," Levy says.

He recalls a woman trying to seduce a waiter at a party she was throwing for her husband. The waiter complained and was reassigned to a post away from the amorous hostess and other partygoers. And to avoid problems, Levy says, he sometimes assigns female staff members to bachelorette parties.

Alcohol is usually involved in these cases. Drinking can cause other problems for hosts.

The Chubb survey found that about two-thirds of hosts never stopped a guest from drinking or took their car keys away. A well-lubricated guest on the road could have serious consequences for you.

Thirty-three states allow hosts to be held liable if they served alcohol to a guest who is later involved in a crash that caused an injury or death, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Maryland isn't one of them.

Even so, a victim or victim's family could still end up filing a civil lawsuit against the host, says Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Maryland's attorney general's office.

Fix it.

You might know that a chair has a wobbly leg, but you don't want unwary guests to fall off and injure themselves. Repair hazards around the house to protect your guests and you.

Questions? Comments? Want to share your own financial tips with readers? Contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@balt sun.com.

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