It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… how to avoid the pitfalls

Although last year we promised no Christmas party article, a recent case provides some interesting talking points…

Employers can be held personally liable for the actions of their employees if an unlawful act is carried out in the course of employment. The term ‘course of employment’ can include organised social gatherings such as Christmas parties. An employer may however not be liable when the social gatherings are done on employees’ own initiative and are nothing to do with the work they carry out for the employer. Drawing the line can be difficult.

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] the Respondent Company had arranged for the annual Christmas party to take place at Collingtree Golf Club in Northamptonshire. The Court found that once the party at the Golf Club came to an end, half of the employees went onto the Hilton Hotel. At approximately 3am at the hotel, in an unprovoked attack, the Claimant was physically assaulted by the company’s director and shareholder. The Court received statements from witnesses as well as video evidence from CCTV footage which showed the Claimant being punched twice and rendered unconscious with blood coming from his ear following the second punch.

After the assault the Claimant was taken to hospital and subsequently diagnosed with brain damage. The Court had to decide, in the Claimant’s claim for personal injury, whether the employer was vicariously liable for the actions of the director/shareholder.

The Court placed particular emphasis on the Respondent’s argument that what followed on after the party at the Golf Club was an “impromptu drink” with the Judge holding that: “the spontaneous post event drink at the hotel… cannot be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party”. For that reason, in this case, the employer was not held liable.

However, the Judge also explained that “to search for certainty and precision in vicarious liability is to undertake a quest for a chimaera. Many aspects of the law of torts are inherently imprecise.” Because of these uncertainties employers are well advised to have adequate policies in place so that employees understand the standard of conduct expected of them at office parties (and in the workplace in general).

But do please remember to have a good time as well…

Dominic Bonham