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When are employers liable for their employees’ Christmas party antics?

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court held that a Company was not vicariously liable for an assault by one of its directors against an employee, following a Company Christmas party. The assault was provoked by a heated discussion about a work matter which occurred in the presence of employees in a hotel bar following the Christmas party. However, the High Court was satisfied that a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu drinks’, such that the latter did not occur in the course of the employment.

M was managing director of NR Ltd. In 2010 he recruited B, a friend. The Company Christmas party in 2011 took place at a golf club. All employees and their partners were invited, totalling 24 people. Following the party, half of the guests, including M and B, went on to a hotel where some were staying. This was not a planned extension of the party. However, since the Company paid taxi fares for all party guests, it paid for taxis to the hotel. The majority of the group continued to drink alcohol and it was expected that the Company – acting through M – would pay for at least some of the drinks. The conversation was initially on social topics but by about 2:00 am it turned to work matters. A controversial issue arose and M lost his temper. M began to lecture the employees present on how he owned the Company and made the decisions. When B challenged him, in a non-aggressive manner, M punched him twice. The second blow knocked B out, causing him to fall and sustain brain damage. B brought a claim for damages against NR Ltd on the basis that it was vicariously liable for M’s conduct.

Decision

The High Court rejected the claim. It noted that the boundaries of this form of liability have often proved difficult to identify and remained so. The High Court took into account that M was authorised to act on the Company’s behalf with a wide remit and that things were done ‘his way’. It was also noted that M viewed his job as involving motivation of employees, including the provision of benefits such as the Christmas party. M was able to take decisions as to expenditure and it was no doubt at his discretion that the party, drinks, accommodation and taxis were paid for by the Company. However, the Court did not accept that the effect of such a wide range of duties was that M should always be considered to be on duty solely because he was in the presence of other employees, regardless of circumstances.

Among the factors pointing away from a finding of vicarious liability was the fact that the assault was committed after, not during, a work social event. A line could be drawn between the Christmas party at the golf club and the ‘impromptu drink’ at the hotel – there was a temporal and substantive difference between the two and the latter was not a seamless extension of the former. The fact that the assault occurred in the context of a discussion about work had only a limited effect on the question of liability. The High Court also considered the actual words spoken in the context of the assault. Merely raising a work-related topic cannot have the effect of changing an interaction between colleagues into something ‘in the course of employment’, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. If the mere fact of a discussion being between employees and about work were enough for liability to arise, it would mean that a Company’s potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable.

The High Court thought it also relevant to consider the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting B at risk of injury at the relevant time. Although the provision of alcohol brings with it an increased risk of confrontation, it is customarily provided at Christmas parties and can be safely enjoyed in moderation. It was notable that the party itself passed without incident. What followed later arose in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session. Even assuming that the Company paid for some or most of the eventual bill, any increased risk of confrontation arising from the additional alcohol at the hotel could not properly be treated as supporting a finding of vicarious liability, being so far removed from employment.

Comment

This case clearly distinguishes the factors that Tribunals will consider to determine when an employer will be vicariously liable for its employee’s acts. The annual Christmas party is an occasion where, all too frequently, an employee will behave in a way that would not normally be accepted in an office environment. However, this case provides helpful guidance as to the approach a Tribunal will adopt in respect of any acts by employees that occur after the official Christmas party ends.

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Legal news, views, trends and tools for HR Professionals. Stay ahead. Go further