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Enjoy the Christmas Festivities... But Not Too Much!

on Thursday, 13 December 2018.

You have worked harmoniously with your family all year, so what better way of celebrating than holding a Christmas party for your family and colleagues?

However, beware! With all the festivities of Christmas and a couple of tipples, things could change, as highlighted by a recent case where things turned a little sour at the office Christmas party.

A company was ultimately found vicariously liable for injuries caused by its Managing Director, who assaulted a colleague at impromptu drinks after the team Christmas party.

What Happened?

Northampton Recruitment Ltd's Christmas party at a golf club was followed by 'impromptu drinks' at a hotel, attended by around half of the party guests. The company paid for the Christmas party, taxis to the hotel and for accommodation at the hotel. It was also expected that the company would continue paying for drinks at the hotel even though this was not a pre-planned extension to the Christmas party.

In the early hours, a work-related conversation took place and ended up with Mr Major, the Managing Director, very seriously assaulting another employee, Mr Bellman. As a result of the attack, Mr Bellman was unable to continue working and brought a claim against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major.

The High Court's Decision

The High Court held that the company was not vicariously liable for Mr Major's actions and dismissed the claim. It found that there was insufficient connection between the incident and the employment and that the incident occurred due to the "voluntary and personal choices" of those involved.

The Appeal

The Court of Appeal found that there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role, and accordingly the company was vicariously liable for his actions. In reaching the decision, the Court of Appeal considered the following:

  • Field of activities - what was the nature of Mr Major’s job?

    Crucially, Mr Major’s remit and authority were very wide. He maintained managerial authority, made decisions in relation to company expenditure and was the ‘directing mind and will’ of the company with a ‘round-the-clock’ role.
  • Sufficient connection - was there a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s ‘field of activities’ and the assault on a colleague at 3am?

    Although Mr Major was obviously not authorised by the company to carry out such an act and although the assault occurred outside of working hours at impromptu drinks, the court found that Mr Major had been purporting to use his position at the time of the assault.

    In particular, immediately before the assault, the conversation had turned to work and Mr Major had summoned the remaining workforce to congregate for a lecture concerned with the extent and nature of his authority.

The court found that there was therefore a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role, and accordingly the company was vicariously liable for his actions.

Best Practice

This decision is specific to the very particular facts in the case and does not mean that employers will always be liable for the consequences of arguments between colleagues, even where one is more senior than another.

The case does however highlight risks that employers need to be aware of, especially heading into the Christmas party season. You should ensure that clear policies and guidelines are in place for staff at all levels regarding the conduct and standards of behaviour that are expected of them both in and out of work.

For further information, please contact Nick Murrell in our Employment Law team on 0117 314 5627.