Employer: you may be liable for the improper actions of staff at the work Christmas party

A recent case acts as a timely reminder to employers that they may be held responsible for the improper behaviour of their staff at work social events.

The case (Bellman v Northampton Recruitment) concerned a work Christmas party which had ended. However, some colleagues decided to continue partying at a nearby hotel until the early hours. The company paid for the taxis to the hotel and paid for some of the drinks that were consumed at the hotel bar.

It was not long until the conversation turned from social topics to work topics and matters became heated. This resulted in a director punching a manager twice, knocking him out and causing him to fall and suffer brain damage.

The manager sued the company and the question arose as to whether the director, at the time of punching the manager, was acting in the course or scope of his employment. This was a significant question because if the director was acting in the course of his employment, then the company would have been vicariously liable for the director’s actions.

Luckily for the company, the Judge held that it was not vicariously liable as the assault took place after the Christmas party, not during it. The Judge considered that the partying at the hotel was an impromptu drinking session and not a seamless extension of the Christmas party.

The fact that alcohol had been supplied by the company at the Christmas party was not sufficient to make the company responsible for putting the manager at risk of injury later on that night.

The Judge accepted that consuming alcohol can increase the risk of confrontation but it is customarily provided at Christmas parties and can be enjoyed safely, in moderation. (It was notable that the Christmas party itself had passed without incident). Accordingly, the company should not be liable for the actions of a director who went on to drink heavily after the party had ended.

What this case highlights is the fact that employers may be responsible for the actions of their employees at work social events – this is especially likely if alcohol is flowing freely!

If you would like to discuss this case or have any queries about your business being vicariously liable for the actions of its staff, then contact a member of the Employment team.

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