With the Christmas party season in full swing the courts have recently issued a judgment which proves a timely reminder of liabilities owed by employers when the festive frolics move from fun to violence.
Organisations are liable for reckless acts committed by their employees where it can be shown that the acts are so closely connected to their employment. The legal definition refers to employers being vicariously liable for such acts which are carried out in the “course of employment”.
The facts of the case:
In the case in question, the company – Northampton Recruitment Limited, held its Christmas party at a golf club. The party was attended by the Managing Director – John Major, its employees and their partners. After the party at the golf club had ended, some of the attendees, decided to return to the hotel at which some of their number were staying so that they could continue the festivities at an impromptu after-party.
The company paid for the taxis to take those guests to the hotel. It was also expected that the company would pay for some of their drinks at the hotel.
As the impromptu party at the hotel continued, conversation moved to work matters and a heated discussion ensued between Mr Major and one of the managers – Clive Bellman. At around 3am the heated discussion erupted into violence when Mr Major twice punched Mr Bellman. Mr Bellman was knocked unconscious, fell and suffered a serious brain injury as a result of the punches.
The court was asked to consider whether the company was vicariously liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries despite the assault happening after the company’s official Christmas party had ended. The court considered whether it could be said that, at the time Mr Major punched Mr Bellman, he was ‘acting in the course or scope of his employment”. In coming to its decision the court took account of the fact that:
- Mr Major was authorised to act on the company’s behalf with a wide remit and that things were done ‘his way’.
- An element of Mr Major’s role was to motivate his employees – one such form of motivation being the company’s Christmas party, and
In his role as the Managing Director, Mr Major had sufficient discretion to authorise the company’s payment of taxis to, as well as accommodation and drinks at, the hotel.
However, the court decided that the fact that the offender was the Managing Director did not mean he should always be considered to be on duty when in the company of other employees. The court also made it clear that, although the subject of conversation giving rise to the assault was work –related, this in itself did not bring it the incident into “the course of employment”. The court concluded that, as the incident happened after the company’s official party ended without incident and at a time when the employees each took a personal decision to continue drinking heavily (albeit to some extent at the company’s expense), the incident was so far removed from Mr Major’s employment that the company could not be treated as vicariously liable.
Although a sad story, the court’s decision in this instance will come of some relief to employers. To ensure that your company’s parties and festivities can be enjoyed by all in the spirit in which they are intended, now may be the time to issue a gentle reminder to all that conduct rules are equally applicable at work related functions and social events regardless of whether they take place on/off site or in/out of normal working hours.
Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWHC 3104 (QB)
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This update is for general guidance only and does not constitute definitive advice.