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Tis the Season to be Merry: Who is to Blame for Bad Behaviour at your Work's Christmas Party?

Tis the Season to be Merry: Who is to Blame for Bad Behaviour at your Work's Christmas Party?

The festive season is upon us and the office Christmas party is the talk of many workplaces.

Generally, the Christmas party is a place where employees are encouraged to let their hair down and celebrate, but will an employer be responsible for their employees’ actions when things don’t always go as planned?  The recently decided case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited provided some clarification as to who may be liable for inappropriate behaviour at the work’s Christmas party. 

What Happened?

The case involved an altercation between two employees.  The Christmas party was held at a local Golf Club.  All members of staff were invited, as were their partners.  It is unsurprising that alcohol was consumed by many attending but as the night progressed, more than half of the guests decided, on a spur-of-the-moment decision, to continue the party on until the small hours at a nearby hotel.   During a heated exchange at the hotel, a director of the company assaulted an employee.  The employee was punched twice and was knocked to the floor, causing him to suffer brain damage.

What the Court Decided?

The court turned its attention as to whether the company was vicariously liable for the acts of the director or whether he was acting in a personal capacity.  In an employment context, vicarious liability is where an employer can be liable for the acts, or omissions, of its employees.  For the principle to apply, the acts or omissions must take place in the course of the employees’ employment.  What the Tribunals will consider to be within the “course of employment” will very much depend on the facts and nature of a particular case.

In the case noted above, vicarious liability did not apply and the High Court rejected the employee’s claim, rendering the director personally liable for any injuries suffered. 

The Basis of the Court’s Decision

The decision was based on the fact that there was a clear line to be drawn between the Christmas party at the golf club and the continuation of the party at the hotel.  The defendant company was very small and there was some expectation for employees to attend the Christmas party.  The organised event had ended however and as a result the obligation on any employee to participate had also ended.  Several of the employees decided to head home after the event at the golf club and a clear line could be drawn under the night’s events.  The party at the hotel was therefore classed as an ‘impromptu drink’ rather than a work-related social event.

The court accepted that the assault occurred in the context of a discussion about work but this could only have a limited effect on the question of liability.   For a significant period of time, the conversation concerned social topics.  If speaking about work matters at some point throughout the duration of an evening was enough for vicarious liability to arise, it would open a company’s potential liability to a remit so wide, the possibilities for a claim would be endless.  The court was very clear in their decision that the rule of vicarious liability is to have proper boundaries; it is not endless. 

What the Decision Signifies for You

It is a surprising decision as other cases have found employers vicariously liable for behaviour in the pub after work.  The decision is a reminder to employers of how unpredictable vicarious liability is and that an employer could be held responsible for improper behaviour at any work event. The court made it very clear that had the assault occurred earlier in the evening at the golf club, the outcome may have been entirely different.  There is however some comfort for employers that the decision was approached with common sense.    

It may be a prudent reminder to employers to take steps to mitigate any risks involved.  In the run up to the Christmas party, ensure policies are up to date and brought to the attention of employees, and where improper behaviour has occurred at an organised work-related event, to take disciplinary action.  Whilst not wanting to be Scrooge, encouraging staff not to drink too much is also recommended.

If you have queries about employment law matters please contact Noele on the details below.

Posted by Noele McClelland


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