December 17, 2018

Company Liable for Christmas Party Assault that left Employee Brain Damaged

When thinking about how you should prepare for your work Christmas party it’s important to have a clear understanding of your roles and responsibilities as an employer.

Whilst rules may relax when the drinks are flowing, there’s very clear guidance in employment law that you as an employer are vicariously liable for the behaviour of your employees at work social events. This includes events that are funded by you, part funded or even just organised by you, extending to pre and post parties. The behaviour that you would expect at workp applies outside of work and you should see your Christmas party as an extension of the workplace.

Business responsible for Director’s Actions During Christmas Party

A recent case, Clive Bellman-v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, helps employers understand their liability in relation to work parties and especially after parties.

Mr Bellman was employed by Northampton Recruitment (NR) as a Sales Manager. In December 2011 Northampton Recruitment held a Christmas Party which Mr Bellman attended. The company’s managing director, Mr Major, was also present at the party. The company supplied alcohol at the party.

When the party finished Mr Major, Mr Bellman and several other employees decided to have additional drinks at a new location. The managing director paid for the employee’s taxis. At some point during the night, employees started discussing work related matters, and Mr Bellman mentioned a new NR employee who had been the subject of conversation in the office as other employees believed that he was paid substantially more.

Mr Major was annoyed at being questioned about Mr Kelly and lost his temper. He moved towards Mr Bellman started swearing “I fucking make the decisions in this company it’s my business” and punched him twice in the face.

Mr Bellman sustained a fracture to his skull that left him with brain damage. He brought the claim against the company and in 2016 the high court concluded that there was insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and his wrongful conduct to have NR liable.

Mr Bellman appealed, and the Court of Appeal overturned the previous decision. The Court of Appeal found Northampton Recruitment to be liable for the actions taken by Mr Major during the after-party. The altercation took place around a work topic and the Judge stated that Mr Major “chose to wear his metaphorical managing director’s hat… to deliver a lecture to his “subordinates” and was “exercising a very wide remit” that Northampton Recruitment gave him, “despite the time and place”. The judge also stated “the risk of wrongful conduct was enhanced by Northampton Recruitment’s provision of alcohol”. Mr Bellman was awarded £1 million compensation. 

What should employers take from this case?

An important element of this case is that the company had paid towards the after party. When the official party had ended Mr Major, the MD, paid for the taxis to the after party and he also paid for drinks whilst he was there so this was deemed to be an extension of the original party.

This case provides important guidance to employers on liability over their team member’s actions. While this is an extreme example of how things can go wrong at a work Christmas party it’s important to be aware of your roles and responsibilities to minimise the risk of such behaviour.

Do’s and don’ts for hosting a Christmas party

Do:

  • Ensure you have the right policies and procedures in place
  • Set expectations to your employees about acceptable behaviour
  • Ensure leaders/managers set the right example
  • Keep an eye on social media
  • Be prepared to deal with any inappropriate behaviour

Don’t:

  • Provide excessive/unlimited access to alcohol
  • Get drawn into work discussions
  • Forget health and safety

Christmas Party Survival Guide Webinar

For more information listen to our Christmas Party Survival Guide webinar. The webinar covers:

  • Your role and responsibilities as an employer
  • Dos and don’ts for hosting a Christmas party (incl. location)
  • What to do before and during the day
  • How to handle any fallout should things go wrong

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About the author

Hannah Booth