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Are Employers Responsible for the Actions of Employees at the Christmas Party?

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Whilst most employers plan parties for their employees over the festive period, the events of the party itself can sometimes cause an employer to have more than just a sore head the next morning. In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214, the Courts handed down a stark warning to employers about the risks associated with staff parties.

Here, the employment team at Greenaway Scott takes a look at the judgement of this case and what it means for employers when the events of the Christmas party don’t quite go to plan.

Under the concept of vicarious liability an employer can be held vicariously liable for the acts of an employee where such acts were committed “in the course of employment”. In the Bellman case, the Court of Appeal considered whether the Company should be liable for the Managing Director punching a colleague after a Christmas party.

The Facts

The Company Christmas party in 2011 took place in a golf club where employees and their partners attended. After the party, a group of the employees went on to a hotel for more drinks with the Company paying for the taxis to the hotel. By 2:00am, an argument arose regarding a new employee and where they should be based.

The Managing Director, Mr Major is alleged to have begun lecturing the remaining employees in the vein that he was the Managing Director and was able to make the decisions for the Company. One of the employees, Mr Bellman, challenged Mr Major and in response Mr Major punched him twice.

Unfortunately, the second punch knocked Mr Bellman to the marble floor where he hit his head, rendering him unconscious and causing brain damage that meant Mr Bellman may never work again.

The High Court originally ruled against Mr Bellman, saying that the Company could not be held vicariously liable for the assault as the drinks were not pre-planned, were not part of the Christmas party itself and were entirely ‘voluntary and personal choices.’

The High Court’s decision was overturned on appeal as it was decided that the court should look at the activities assigned to an employee in the broad sense and also to look at the matter objectively, taking into account the position of the employee within the Company. In this case, Mr Major’s job role was sufficiently wide and so it was up to the court to consider whether there was a sufficient connection between his job, and the assault.

Having determined that the nature of Mr Major’s job was wide, the court went on to consider whether there was a sufficient connection between that job and the assault.

The Court of Appeal considered that, although impromptu, the hotel drinks occurred on the same night as the Christmas party, and Mr Major used that time to deliver a lecture to employees – effectively acting within his role as managing Director and his seniority was a significant factor. On that basis, the court decided there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job and the assault to render the Company liable for Mr Major’s actions.

It is important to note that this case does not mean that employers will be liable for all violent acts by employees, even when one is more senior, it will depend on the facts of each case.

This case does not mean that we would advise you not to have a Christmas party, Christmas parties can be a team building exercise, a way of appreciating employees and celebrating success.  There are however some things that you can do to help mitigate the risk to the Company:

  • Advise all staff that the party will be an extension of the workplace and remind them of their obligations and duties;
  • Deal with any allegations made by Employees in line with your Grievance/ Disciplinary procedure and ensure that these are not ‘swept under the carpet’. We can assist you in advising you of the correct process; and / or
  • Ensure you have policies in place that tell the employees/provide guidance on what is expected from them such as a harassment and bullying policy, social media policy and an equal opportunities policy. If you do not have such policies contact our team today so that we can assist you.

If you do encounter any problems/have any concerns please do not hesitate to contact our HR and employment team who will be able to help you through the process and limit your liability as much as possible. For a no-obligation quote, use our new online ‘Get a Quote’ service.