The work Christmas party season is (just about) over for another year and hopefully the usual warnings about behaviour have been heeded. However, a recent personal injury case has discussed the bounds of an employer’s liability for unfortunate events arising on a Christmas night out.
A seasonal cautionary tale
The English case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited is a tale of how a work party can go badly wrong. Mr Bellman was an employee of Northampton Recruitment Limited (NRL), and was also a personal friend of the managing director of NRL, John Major (not the former Prime Minister!).
NRL is a relatively small company, and all members of staff and their partners were invited to the Christmas Party, which was held at a golf club. Twenty four people attended and, at first, a pleasant evening was had by all. Indeed, the night was going so well that 13 of the 24 went on to a Hilton hotel to continue the carousing after the party had finished.
This was not part of the official company party or a pre-planned extension to the party, and it was here that matters took a darker turn.
At around 3am, the conversation turned (in hindsight, unwisely) to company politics. Mr Major felt that Mr Bellman was challenging his authority and decision-making within the company. This caused Mr Major considerable anger and he repeatedly punched Mr Bellman, despite attempts being made by other members of staff to hold him back.
Mr Bellman was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe brain injury, to the extent that he is unlikely to be able to work again. A claim was raised for personal injury against NRL on the basis of vicarious liability, alleging that NRL should be liable for the actions of Mr Major.
Was the company liable for the incident?
The question for the courts to consider was, in short, whether there was a sufficient connection between the post party events and Mr Major’s employment with NRL. If there was, then this would render NRL vicariously liable for Mr Major’s assault. This would, it is envisaged, be preferable to Mr Bellman as it would be likely that NRL would have a policy of insurance in place which could result in a greater likelihood of enforcing in full any award of damages.
First, a distinction was drawn by the court between the organised work social event at the golf club and the drinks had at the Hilton hotel. The court viewed the Christmas party as closely connected to employment, being an event which employees were expected to attend, notwithstanding it was not a contractual obligation to do so.
However, the drinks thereafter were a spontaneous, impromptu post party event. They were not a “seamless extension” of the party. There was a temporal and substantive difference between the two.
Second, although it was acknowledged that the dispute arose from a discussion on work-related issues, this was not sufficient to link it to employment for the purposes of vicarious liability. The evidence was that conversation throughout the drinks had been on a variety of subjects. The mere fact that there was a discussion about work could not be sufficient to attribute liability, as it would result in far too wide a potential liability.
Further, the fact that alcohol had been provided and consumed at the Christmas party and alcohol proved a factor in the assault, did not mean create a link, as the decision to continue with the post party drinking was “a frolic” of their own.
Taking all these factors into account, the court found that there could be no vicarious liability attributed to NRL. Although an English case, and taking into account that claims of this nature always turn on their facts, the court’s thought process and willingness to delve into the detail of the matter to determine liability is interesting to note.
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