This time of year often causes employers headaches at staff Christmas social events - and not just as a result of the free-flowing alcohol. Employers risk being held liable for the misconduct of their employees in the course of employment at such events. In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, an employee argued his employer should be held liable for a violent bust-up at drinks held after the staff Christmas party.

Facts

The events took place after the close of the employer's Christmas party. After the party had ended, all of the staff returned to the nearby Hilton hotel, with some staff continuing the night with drinks in the hotel lobby, whilst others retired to their hotel rooms.

During the course of the after-party drinks, Mr Major (a director and shareholder of the defendant employer) and Mr Bellman (a Sales Manager) had a heated discussion regarding the recruitment and alleged pay of a new recruit and Mr Major's perceived threat to his managerial authority. Mr Major punched twice. He was knocked to the floor and hit his head and sustained significant brain damage. It is unlikely that Mr Bellman will ever be able to work again.

Mr Bellman declined to proceed with a criminal prosecution, despite the overwhelming evidence that the attack was unprovoked, and the hearing solely concerned the issue of civil liability.

Decision

In his judgment, Judge Cotter QC highlighted the "continuing difficulties" in determining vicarious liability, and emphasised that previous case law should be interpreted with caution, as each case turns on its own facts.

Whilst he stressed that the time and the place of the incident "may not be conclusive", the timing of the incident occurring at an impromptu after-party at a separate location to the official Christmas party were influential factors in his decision. Similarly, the voluntary attendance by those present (as indicated by the fact that some staff had retired for the night) and the presence of other hotel residents in the hotel lobby (rather than solely the defendant's employees) were also relevant factors.

As such, the Judge said that: "no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of those employees and the defendant present". The Judge was not persuaded that a connection should be inferred from the fact that the assault was triggered by the discussion of work-related matters. If the mere fact of work matters being discussed could trigger employer liability this would render any company's liability "so wide as to be potentially uninsurable".

In such cases, the risk the employer introduces into the situation by way of employing the employee is often considered. However, the Judge decided that the assault was not connected to the claimant's employment. Although the employer had organised the party and provided alcohol, no altercation or violence had occurred at the Christmas party itself. The Judge concluded that Mr Major, along with the other employees who attended the post-party drinks, could be described as being on "a frolic' of their own". The claim was dismissed.

Comment 

It's worth noting that the Judge said the Christmas party in this case was an employee benefit and was connected with employment. In particular, he commented that the Christmas party described in this case was a typical "organised work social event". His reasoning was that whilst attendance was not a contractual obligation, given the relatively small size of the enterprise, most employees were likely to feel compelled to go given the potential for non-attendance to attract "adverse comment". Employers should be aware that misdemeanours by employees at official Christmas parties still seem to be well within the scope for vicarious liability for employers. Events occurring at voluntary social events may be out of scope, however, it is important to remember that each case will turn on its own facts. Therefore, it would be wise for employers to remind employees of the standards of behaviour expected from staff both inside and outside of work and the potential consequences of a breach.