The Christmas festivities are now hopefully a distant memory for most of us. That is of course if your Christmas party was not a fertile source of inappropriate, and in some cases, violent behaviour of members of your workforce.
It is settled law that employers can be held liable for the acts of employees carried out in the course of employment, save where an employer is able to show they took all reasonable steps to avoid the act occurring. The principle of holding employers liable for the acts of their employees is known as vicarious liability. By way of example, in the case of Hawley v Luminar Leisure Limited, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court that a nightclub exercised sufficient control over the actions of a doorman supplied to it by a security company, to deem the nightclub his “temporary” employer for the purposes of vicarious liability. The Court of Appeal found that the nightclub had sole vicarious liability and assessed the security company’s liability at nil.
This brings us to the more recent decision of Bellman v Northern Recruitment Limited, here the High Court ruled that an employer was not vicariously liable for a violent assault by its Managing Director on an employee at an impromptu drinking session after its Christmas party. This was because it was an ‘impromptu drink,’ 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), and because 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.’ The Court said that the incident had arisen in the context of ‘entirely voluntary and personal choices’ by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session.
What does this mean?
Employers may be able to escape liability in such circumstances, but it will depend on the facts of a particular case.
What should employers do?
Employers should exercise caution as 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.
The possibility of inappropriate behaviour at work related social functions is entirely foreseeable and employers should be vigilant and proactive in ensuring that acceptable standards of behaviour are defined and communicated to all employees and workers.
For more information on how to manage the risk of vicarious liability, contact a member of the Employment Team at FG Solicitors on 01604 871143.