It seems that not a year goes by without a workplace social event going dramatically wrong and leading to litigation. Although, in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment, the High Court found the employer not liable for a serious assault by a director on a member of staff, it made clear that employers will often bear responsibility for the consequences of similar incidents. This case involved a small recruitment business which held its Christmas party at a local golf club. All employees and their partners were invited, totalling 24 people. After the event, a number of employees, including the director, went on to a hotel bar and continued drinking until the early hours of the morning. A work-related disagreement arose between the director and a manager employed by the company. The exchange culminated in the director punching the manager, knocking him out and causing him to fall and sustain a brain injury. The manager made a personal injury claim against the company, arguing that it was vicariously liable for the actions of the director.
The High Court held that the company was not vicariously liable for the director’s actions. It carefully considered whether the director has been acting “in the course or scope of his employment” when the incident occurred and decided that he had not. Although the Christmas party was paid for by the company and the assault was provoked by a heated discussion about a work matter, the High Court drew a distinction between the party itself and the impromptu event that followed it. The company would have been liable if the employee had been struck at the party itself. However, the director could not be said to be ‘on duty’ at all times simply because he was in the company of other employees.
The issue of vicarious liability is often very finely balanced and the outcome could be different in another similar case. A court or tribunal will carefully analyse all the facts and circumstances of the case to determine whether an incident, in context, is sufficiently connected to employment for an employer to bear responsibility. Behaviour at a social event arranged and subsidised by an employer will usually be considered work-related. However, things can be less clear-cut where employees arrange their own celebrations or move on from the ‘official’ Christmas party to another venue.
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