15th Dec 2016

Drinks, music and vicarious liability at the work Christmas party

With the Christmas season fully upon us, employees may be forgiven for looking forward to forgetting their responsibilities at this year’s work Christmas party and working up a generous bar bill for their employer to cover.

Employers should remind their staff, however, that this year’s season to be jolly can only extend so far at any Christmas party. After all, a company can be held liable for the actions of its employees “in the course of employment” and this can include a social event organised by an employer as an extension of the workplace.

a company can be held liable for the actions of its employees - even at a work Christmas party

In this timely decision of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2016], the High Court has recently held that an employer was not vicariously liable for the assault by one of its directors on an employee at an impromptu drinking session after the Christmas party.  


The Facts

The defendant company in the recent Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited case was the organiser of the Christmas party and employer of the claimant, Mr Bellman. Mr Bellman attended the party alongside 23 other employees and their partners.

After the party, half the guests, including Mr Major (the company Managing Director) and Mr Bellman, went on to a hotel for some more “impromptu drinks”. At these drinks, the conversation was initially on social topics, but by about 2am it turned to work matters.  Mr Bellman in a non-aggressive manner challenged a comment made by Mr Major about the recruitment and deployment of another employee. In response, Mr Major swore at Mr Bellman before punching him twice. Mr Bellman was knocked to the floor, fractured his skull and suffered significant brain damage.

Mr Bellman subsequently brought a claim for damages against the company, rather than Mr Major, on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct. 


The Decision

The High Court dismissed the claim and held that the company was not vicariously liable for the assault.

Mr Bellman’s lawyers argued that the post event drinks was an extension of the Christmas party, therefore the attack took place “in the course of employment”. Also, it was submitted that the discussion that had taken place was in relation to work matters and consequently was in the course of and closely connected to his employment.

However, this was not what the court decided. A key finding in the court’s reasoning was that this was an “impromptu drinking” session which was not itself a part of the work Christmas party - despite the expectation that some, or all of the bill would be met by the company.  The mere fact that the assault had followed a discussion of work matters did not mean that it was necessarily in the course of employment.

Among 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 original venue and the “impromptu drinks” that followed at a hotel; there was a temporal and substantive difference between the two, and the latter was not a “seamless extension” of the former. 

The court also considered the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting Mr Bellman at risk of injury at the time.  Although, providing alcohol brings with it an increased risk of confrontation, it’s usually provided for at Christmas parties and can be safely enjoyed in moderation. It was notable that the Christmas party itself had passed without incident. However, what followed after arose in the context of “entirely voluntary and personal choices” by those present to continue on drinking into the early hours of the morning.


Comment

This decision is surprising, given the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Mohamud v WM Morrisons Plc [2016], in which the supermarket was held vicariously liable for an employee’s unprovoked violent assault on a customer at one of its petrol stations.

While the employer in the above case was successful in defending the claim, this decision should serve as a warning about the unpredictability of the principle of vicarious liability. Had the attack happened at the Christmas party itself, then the outcome is likely to have been different and in Mr Bellman’s favour.

This decision does not change the law, nor does it establish that post-Christmas party drinks are outside the scope of employment for vicarious liability purposes – so employers should still exercise caution.  Each case will always turn and be examined on its own facts.

If your works Christmas party is approaching, it may be worth reminding your staff of what’s expected of them and give a gentle reminder that any after party or drinks which follows the main event, wherever this takes place is not an organised work event.  This will hopefully ensure your party is a success, without the post party hangover and bah humbug!

We would like to wish all our clients and contacts season’s greetings and a prosperous new year.    


Mike Patterson is an industry ranked Employment Law specialist and Commercial Lawyer at Berwins Solicitors 

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