Preparing for the Party Season? Are you as an employer liable for the conduct of an employee at an event held outside of work?

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25 October, 2018

Yes, you could be! Last week in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal found that the company was liable for an incident that happened after a work event had finished.

This case is particularly important now in the run up to Christmas (it's never too early to start thinking about Christmas) as the event where the incident took place was at a work Christmas party. Christmas parties are often a source of concern from a HR perspective, when they are faced with the challenge of trying to maintain appropriate conduct whilst ensuring employees have a good time.

The facts of this case were as follows:

Mr. Bellman, the Claimant, was employed by Northampton Recruitment, the Respondent, as a Sales Manager. Mr. Major was the Managing Director and one of the most senior employees of the Company. The Respondent's Christmas party was held at a local venue. After the party had ended, Mr. Major organised taxis to take a select few employees to a hotel where they continued the party. After a few hours an argument broke out regarding a new employee. Mr. Major became angry at this and began to lecture the group about his authority and when Mr. Bellman questioned him on this he punched him. Mr. Bellman suffered substantial injuries following on from this, such as a fractured skull and internal bleeding. These injuries consequently resulted in him suffering from brain damage.

The two main points which the court considered were:

  1. the nature of the employee's job; and
  2. whether there was a sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct (the physical assault on Mr. Bellman) for the employer to be responsible for Mr. Major's actions (known as vicarious liability). The Court of Appeal made it clear that the distinction here was not the differences between officially organised work Christmas parties and impromptu after parties, with a few members of staff. On the contrary, the important factor was that Mr. Major was the Managing Director of the company and as such was its most senior member of staff and he was using the after party setting to assert his authority over the other employees and while acting in a managerial role, it resulted in him assaulting a less senior employee.

This case is a significant decision and has an important influence in terms of employment law as it examines the issue of vicarious liability and in particular, whether a business is still liable for the actions of its Directors and employees even if the incident took place out of office hours and outside of the control of the company. The case reiterates that despite the location or timing, if a manager is outside of work but still, as quoted by the judge, 'wearing his metaphorical Managing Director's hat' then you as a Company could be liable for his/ her actions.

This case is certainly something to keep in the back of your mind when planning the office Christmas party. In order to proactively prevent issues like this occurring and to avoid vicarious liability for the acts of employees, employers must take all steps reasonably possible to prevent these acts from occurring. With regard to Christmas parties, it is advisable to issue a conduct statement or to implement a policy to outline what you as a company expect as a standard even when booze is flowing and people are having fun.

If you are looking for more information in relation to anything mentioned in this article, please view our Employment & HR section. You can also contact our Employment and HR team by telephone on 0333 207 1135. Alternatively, send your enquiry to us through our online contact form.

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