Christmas, after parties and employer’s vicarious liability

As the nights are getting colder and the mince pies are coming out it can only mean one thing…Christmas is almost upon us! And as many HR professionals will be only too aware, with Christmas comes the much-anticipated Christmas party and often uncharacteristic staff behaviour. 

Whereas it is generally recognised that the Christmas party can be a great way to boost staff morale at the end of the calendar year, a recent Court of Appeal case serves as a cautionary tale of why employers would do well to remind staff of acceptable workplace behaviour at company events and socials.

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd the Court of Appeal held that an employer can be vicariously liable for an injury caused at an informal after party which took place following a formal work Christmas party. The case concerned an incident whereby the managing director (MD) punched a sales manager causing him brain damage.

The incident occurred at a hotel following a Christmas party organised by the Respondent employer. The managing director had arranged for taxis to transport staff to the hotel where the incident had happened and the drinks had predominantly been paid for by the employer. The court therefore needed to decide whether there was sufficient connection between the managing director's wrongful conduct and his role for the employer to be vicariously liable.

The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision at first instance which had decided that the employer was not vicariously liable for the MD's actions. The Court of Appeal held that the Respondent would be vicariously liable for two reasons. Firstly, the nature of the employee's job meant that he was the most senior employee and directing mind of the employer. The incident had broken out following an argument during which he was asserting his authority in his role. Secondly, the party had followed on from an organised work event and so there was sufficient connection between the MD's wrongful conduct and his role to render a finding of vicarious liability appropriate.

With the above in mind, employers should be mindful that they could be found liable for their employee's actions which occur at work events or even at informal gatherings following a formal event. Staff should therefore be reminded of what is acceptable behaviour at work and that such expectations apply even at social events.

Cautious employers may also wish to carefully consider whether to involve themselves in organising any informal after parties, in order to reduce the risk of a link being found between the informal event and the employer.

For more information on this article please contact me on +44 (0)1872 243307 or email [email protected].