Could you end up paying for more than just the bar tab at your office Christmas party?

7th December 2016

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Employment law issues when a Christmas party goes wrong

‘Tis the season, which means office parties and other work related social events, but can employers be vicariously liable for the actions of employees who let their hair down and go that one step too far?

The High Court has just provided a mince-pie crumb of comfort for employers in their recent decision in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, which held that a company was not vicariously liable for the assault by its Managing Director on an employee following a company Christmas party.

The company held its annual Christmas party to which all employee plus their partners were invited. Following the party half the guests went on to a hotel where some of the employees were staying, this was not a planned extension of the party but ‘impromptu drinks’, some of which were paid for by the company. The chat turned from social topics to work matters and a controversial issue arose. An employee challenged the Managing Director, in a non-aggressive manner, and the MD punched him twice, the second blow knocking him out, causing him to fall and sustain brain damage. The employee brought a claim for damages against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the MD’s conduct.

The High Court rejected the claim on the basis that the assault was committed after, not during, the work party. The court felt a line could be drawn between the Christmas party and the ‘impromptu drinks’ at the hotel afterward. In addition, merely raising a work-related topic did not have the effect, of itself, of changing an interaction between colleagues into something which was “in the course of employment”. The court also considered the extent to which the employee was put at risk as a result of him being an employee of the company. The court felt alcohol is customarily provided at Christmas parties and can be safely enjoyed in moderation. The party itself had passed without incident and what followed after was as a result of the voluntary actions of those who chose to continue drinking. The fact that some or most of the eventual bar bill from the hotel was paid for by the company did not extend the liability of the company to the actions of the MD.

This decision adopts a pretty common sense approach to the conundrum of the what amounts to in work and out of work in the context of social events and should be welcome news to employers, particularly in the context of the recent expansion of the doctrine of vicarious liability in the employment context in cases such as Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc and Cox v Ministry of Justice.

For further information see our update ‘Deck the Halls with Disciplinaries’.

Further information

If you would like to discuss the issues raised in this article in more detail or if you have any queries, please contact a member of our Employment Team.

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