Christmas Party Madness!

14 December 2016

Niall McMullan, Associate Partner highlights how an employer may be held vicariously liable for the action/s committed by his employee/s if that employee was acting in the course or scope of his employment and the potential serious repercussions alcohol fuelled work events can have.

Christmas Party Madness!

The High Court in England and Wales has handed down a Decision clarifying the legal principle of vicarious liability in the case of Bellman –v- Northampton Recruitment Limited [2016] EWHC 3104 (QB)

In short, an employer is vicariously liable for the action/s committed by his employee/s if that employee was acting in the course or scope of his employment.

The facts of the present case are sensitive and are a stark reminder to employers and employees alike of the serious repercussions alcohol fuelled work events can have. 

Mr Bellman, the Plaintiff sought damages from the Defendant Company, on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major.  Mr Major was a Managing Director of the Defendant and Mr Bellman was at the relevant time, an employee.  Mr Bellman and Mr Major had been friends since childhood.  Both having attended Primary and Secondary schools together and having developed a strong friendship.

In or about the 17th December 2011 when a group of people were drinking in a hotel lobby at the Hilton hotel in Northants, Mr Major assaulted the Claimant, Mr Bellman, punching him twice and knocking him to the floor in the course of which he hit his head on the marble floor.  As a result of the assault Mr Bellman suffered brain damage. The issue as to whether Mr Major was culpable and therefore liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries was not in dispute.

The assault which took place in or about 3am on 17th December took place after the main Christmas work function on 16th December.  The Defendant’s Christmas party took place at the Collingtree Golf Club in Northamptonshire.  All 24 employees of the Defendant attended the Christmas party.  After the party had ended, just over half of the guests went on to the Hilton hotel, where the assault took place.  This was not a pre-planned extension to the party.  It is understood that the altercation between Mr Major and Mr Bellman took place as a result of Mr Bellman challenging a business decision.

In dismissing Mr Bellman’s claims against the Defendant Company, Mr Major having been removed previously as a Co-Defendant on the basis that those advising Mr Bellman said he could not satisfy any judgement, the Judge accepted that Mr Major who was the Managing Director, saw himself as overall charge of all aspects of the Company and that Mr Major would have seen it as part of his job to oversee the smooth running of the Christmas party, he was not just an attendee.

For a number of reasons the Decision against the Defendant was dismissed however. 

Firstly and perhaps most significantly, the fact that the assault was committed after and not during an organised work social event was deemed entirely relevant.  The Judge stated that he accepted there was an obligation on employees to attend the Christmas party unless there was a good excuse.  However, the organised event at the golf club had ended and as a result, the expectation or obligation on any employee to participate had ended.  In effect, a line could be drawn under the evenings event and not surprisingly some employees went home.  What followed on after the party, was held to be nothing more than an “impromptu drink”.  The Judge went on to state he did not believe that the spontaneous post event drink could be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party. 

Secondly, it was determined that there must be a limit to the effect of a discussion being about work related issues.  It was held that upon return to the hotel, for a significant period of time, the conversation was about social topics and not about work.  Only after that, and as the group narrowed, did the conversation return to work matters.  What then followed, included Mr Major ranting about work and a challenge to one of his managerial decisions, which was a trigger for the assault. 

Thirdly, Judge Cotter went on to state that the extent to which the employment relationship put Mr Bellman and others at increased risk at the material time is a significant factor in considering the closeness between the relationship between Mr Major and the act in question.  He stated that looking at the matters broadly, what was taking place at 3am at the hotel was a drunken discussion that rose after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended; no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of those employed of the Defendant present.  That it then veered into a discussion about work cannot provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company that employed them. 

In conclusion the High Court Judge held “…there was insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and the assault to make it right for the Defendant to be held liable under the principle of social justice… The rule must have proper boundaries; it is not endless.” Whilst it was fully recognised and great sympathy was afforded in this Decision to Mr Bellman and the injuries he sustained, it was held that sympathy with his position cannot impact upon the proper application of principle.

This Decision, whilst harrowing insofar as the facts refer, provides welcomed clarity to the legal principle of vicarious liability and when an employee’s actions can fall outside the employment relationship.  It is a timely warning however to employers also, reminding them that they can be found responsible for improper employee behaviour at workplace social events.

Niall McMullan is an Associate Partner in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast, where he specialises in Employment Law including workplace disputes, unfair dismissal, redundancy claims, fair employment, sex, disability, race and age discrimination claims and Public Interest Disclosure.

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