For many, the festive season is a time for celebration and indulgence. Throughout December, bars and restaurants are bustling with work Christmas parties. Very often, people have “one too many” and for the most part go home without incident. But what happens if an employee gets into a confrontation at the office party? Can the employer be held responsible for the actions of the offending employee?
The answer is… maybe.
In general, an employer is legally responsible for the wrongdoings of an employee where the employee is acting in the course of his or her employment. This does not necessarily mean that the wrongdoing has to occur during working hours. Also, an employer can be liable for the actions of an employee outside normal working hours where there is a sufficient connection between the wrongdoing and the employee’s employment. We advise employers to be vigilant about how employees behave at the work Christmas party because it is likely that an employer will be liable for acts committed by their staff at an event organised by the company.
But what happens if the wrongdoing is committed at an “after party” rather than at the organised work function?
In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited  EWHC 3104 (QB), the director of a company and some of the company’s employees went to a hotel after their Christmas party in order to continue drinking. Whilst they were drinking, the director physically assaulted one of the employees as a result of which he suffered a serious brain injury. The employee brought a claim against the company rather than the director personally.
The High Court decided that the company was not legally responsible for the injuries caused by the employee because the assault occurred at a private drinking session. The employees had made a voluntary, independent choice to continue the drinking session, which was of a very different nature than the Christmas party.
In reaching its decision, the Court considered two key questions:
What was the nature of the employee’s job?
Was there a sufficient connection between the employee’s position and the wrongful conduct such that the employer was held liable ‘under the principle of social justice’?
Although consideration will be given to the time and place the act occurred and this will always be a relevant factor, it may not be conclusive. In this case, the spontaneous post-event drinks took place at a different location and the Court decided that it was not an extension of the work Christmas party.
The court rejected the argument that the assault was closely connected with employment because the conversation later turned to work related matters, which in essence triggered the assault. The policy reason for not upholding this contention was that the company’s liability would ‘become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable’.
Whilst the case was decided in favour of the employer, it is not “clear cut” at which point a work event finishes and a “spontaneous non-work related event” starts. As such, we advise employers to remind employees that the Christmas party is a work event and that employees should behave in an appropriate and professional manner at all times.