Christmas Parties – When is an employer liable for bad behaviour?

Opinion of the English High Court in the case of Clive Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited

Clive Bellman was seriously injured after being punched by a colleague during a Christmas night out. An action for damages was raised by Mr Bellman against Northampton Recruitment on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of his former colleague (who was the MD of the company). Although the annual Christmas party had taken place at a golf club, after it ended just over half of the guests went on to the Hilton Hotel. It was at the Hilton that the assault took place and crucially, this was not a pre-planned extension to the party.

Employers will be familiar with the concept of vicarious liability and some of the recent high profile decisions in this field, such as the Supreme Court decision in the case of ‘Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc’. It is settled law that an employer will be vicariously liable for the actings of their employees for acts carried out ‘in the course of their employment’. It can be difficult, however, to determine when a person is acting in the course of their employment as opposed to on a ‘frolic of their own’. 

It was argued that the Northampton Recruitment should be liable for the actions of the MD because the assault took place following the annual Christmas party. The court therefore had to determine, following the decision in ‘Mohamud’, (i) what functions or ‘field of activities’ had been entrusted by the employer to the employee (i.e. what the nature of the MD’s job was); and (ii) whether there was a sufficiently close connection between this and the wrongful conduct. This test is recognised as being imprecise and to an extent, the court simply has to make an evaluative judgement based on the individual circumstances of the case. The court noted that in the case of assaults by one employee on another, an employer is not liable simply because it occurred during working hours.

The court found that although the MD would have had the power to make decisions in relation to company expenditure and no doubt directed that the Christmas party be held and paid for by the company, he could not be considered to be ‘on duty’ simply because he was in the company of colleagues. Furthermore, it was noted that the assault was committed after, as opposed to during, an organised work social event. The organised event at the golf club had ended, with the result that any obligation to participate had also ended. The court recognised that the trip to the Hilton constituted an ‘impromptu drink’ which had both a substantive and temporal difference from the golf club party. Furthermore, although there had been a work related disagreement in the lead up to the assault, the court did not believe that this would be sufficient to constitute an interaction ‘in the course of employment.’

The court ultimately decided that there was an insufficient connection between the employment and the assault and that as such, the company was not vicariously liable for the actings of its MD. Notwithstanding the lack of vicariously liability, this case serves as a stark reminder of what can go wrong when large amounts of alcohol are consumed at workplace parties and events. Each case is fact specific, however employers should not underestimate the importance of reminding their employees to behave appropriately at workplace events.

A copy of the full judgement can be found here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2016/3104.html

 

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