Olivia Keenan | Trainee Solicitor

The Office Christmas Party – a legal reminder for employers

It’s finally here again- the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all.

Last December, our Victoria Rae advised on the legal implications of the office Christmas party, including employment-related concerns, such as harassment and conduct, and personal injury claims.

The recent Court of Appeal decision in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited provides a timely reminder for employers of both the personal and legal consequences of what can happen when work outings turn for the worse.

Mr Bellman, the claimant, worked for a small company. The managing director was Mr Major. In December 2011, the company hosted a Christmas party in a local golf club. At around midnight, it drew to a close. Mr Major arranged and paid for taxis to go to a hotel that some guests were staying at for further drinks, though this was not a pre-arranged part of the Christmas party. Mr Bellman attended these further drinks. By 2am, the conversation between those who remained, including Mr Bellman and Mr Major, reached the topic of work. A discussion began about one member of staff being paid much more than others. This annoyed Mr Major, who lost his temper. He punched Mr Bellman, who fell down. Despite attempts to restrain Mr Major by other employees present, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman again. The punch knocked out Mr Bellman. Mr Bellman fell back and hit his head on the ground. Mr Bellman suffered multiple head injuries, including a fractured skull, which has left him with traumatic brain damage.

The question that the court had to answer was whether the judge at first instance was wrong to find that Mr Bellman’s employer was not vicariously liable for the wrongful actions of Mr Major. There is a two-stage test to establish vicarious liability. First, the court must establish what the party’s field of activities were in relation to company. Second, the court must consider whether there is a sufficient connection between the field of activities and the party’s wrongful conduct.

The court held that it did not matter the drinks at the hotel were not part of the formally arranged Christmas party. There are two important points to note here. First, it was not decisive that the incident occurred at a separate, after work party event: Mr Major chose to put on his managing director hat again, even if the end of the golf club element of the party meant he had briefly taken it off. Second, the court set out the principle that “misuse of authority can occur out of hours or when the parties are off-duty”, particularly by someone in a senior position.

The court held that the company were, in these circumstances, vicariously liable.

This case serves as an important reminder to all employers this office Christmas party season. Although this is a decision of the England and Wales Court of Appeal, the relevant law it applied, established by the House of Lords and UK Supreme Court is the same as that applied by recent decisions in Scotland (Grubb v Shannon [2018]).

 

Olivia Keenan

Olivia Keenan

Dispute Resolution Team

Olivia is a trainee solicitor with Jackson Boyd. She commenced her traineeship with the firm in 2017

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