Are Employers responsible for the actions of Employees at the Christmas Party?

Are Employers responsible for the actions of Employees at the Christmas Party?

As employers plan parties for their employees over the festive period, the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214 warns of the possible pitfalls.

In the Bellman case, the Court of Appeal considered whether the company should be liable for the Managing Director punching a colleague after a Christmas party.

The Companies Christmas party in 2011 took place in a golf club and employees and their partners attended. After the party, a group of the employees went on to a hotel for more drinks with the Company paying for the taxis to the hotel.

At just before 3am an argument broke out between the Managing Director, Mr Major, and Mr Bellman during which Mr Major punched Mr Bellman twice.

Unfortunately, the second punch knocked Mr Bellman to the marble floor where he hit his head, rendering him unconscious and causing severe brain damage.

Mr Bellman sued his employer claiming that it was vicariously liable.

The concept of vicarious liability means an employer is usually held vicariously liable for the acts of an employee committed "in the course of employment".

The High Court originally ruled against Mr Bellman, saying that the Company could not be held vicariously liable for the assault as the drinks were not preplanned, were not part of the Christmas party itself and were entirely 'voluntary and personal choices.'

The High Court's decision was overturned on appeal as it was decided that the court should look at the activities assigned to an employee in the broad sense and also to look at the matter objectively, looking at the position of the employee within the Company. In this case, Mr Major's job role was sufficiently wide and so it was up to the court to consider whether there was a sufficient connection between his job, and the assault.

Having determined that the nature of Mr Major's job was wide, the court went on to consider whether there was a sufficient connection between that job and the assault.

The Court of Appeal considered that, although impromptu, the hotel drinks occurred on the same night as the Christmas party, and Mr Major used that time to deliver a lecture to employees- effectively acting within his role as managing Director and his seniority was a significant factor. On that basis, the court decided there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major's job and the assault to render the Company liable for Mr Major's actions.

It is important to note that this case does not mean that employers will always be liable for all violent acts by employees, even when one is more senior; it will depend on the facts of each case.

Nor does this case mean that we would advise you not to have a Christmas party, Christmas parties can be a team building, demonstrate appreciation of employees and celebrate success.

There are however some things that you can do to help mitigate the risk to the Company:-

• Advise all staff that the party will be an extension of the workplace and remind them of their obligations and duties;
• Deal with any allegations made by employees in line with your Grievance/ Disciplinary procedure and ensure that these are not 'swept under the carpet'. We can assist you in advising you of the correct process;
• Ensure you have policies in place that provide guidance to employees on what is expected from them such as a harassment and bullying policy, social media policy and an equal opportunities policy.

We can assist you with these policies.

If you have any queries about this, or another other employment or HR matter, please do not hesitate to contact our Employment and HR Team.

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