The work Christmas party is “dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others”, so said the High Court in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited (“NRL”). At this time of year, bacchanalian behaviour in the workplace is as grimly predictable as the articles from employment lawyers warning about its dangers.

However, the facts of the night of NRL’s Christmas party are particularly miserable to relate – the brain injury suffered by Mr Bellman was severe and permanent. The party, attended by the majority of the small workforce and paid for by NRL, took place at a local golf club and, although large amounts of alcohol were consumed, it passed off peacefully.

The attendees then decamped to a nearby hotel for an impromptu after-party. Some employees retired to their rooms, but many stayed up in the hotel’s bar for a session of extremely heavy drinking. At around 3 am, Mr Bellman was subjected to a vicious assault. The assailant was his boss, Mr Major – the managing director, joint shareholder and the “guiding hand and will” of NRL.

The question for the court was whether NRL should be held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. In essence, the law requires a consideration of whether there was a sufficiently close “connection between the position in which he was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for [NRL] to be held liable”. That is, of course, somewhat vague and the circumstances of each case need to be carefully considered – in particular the context of the act. Just because it was at a work event doesn’t mean the employer is liable (and vice versa).

In this case, NRL was not vicariously liable. The following factors were important:

  • The attack took place at the after-party and not the party itself. The court found that there was a strong obligation on the employees of NRL to attend the party at the golf club, but that ceased to be the case once the festivities had moved to the hotel. This meant there was a “substantive” difference between the two phases of the evening.
  • The after-party was spontaneous and not a pre-planned part of the evening, despite the fact that the taxis to the hotel and drinks at it were paid for by NRL.
  • Although the apparent trigger for the attack was Mr Major’s perceived criticism by Mr Bellman of his management decisions, the discussion of work matters (even with the organisation’s most senior member) is not enough to turn a recreational context into a work one. The danger of doing so would be to extend employers’ liability so far that it could become uninsurable.

The case of Bellman shows, with sensible precautions (perhaps more precisely, limits on alcohol) and clear boundaries (e.g. carriages at midnight specified on the invitation), employers can take steps to protect themselves in terms of vicarious liability for their employees’ actions on those dreaded*/delightful* Christmas occasions. (*Delete as appropriate).