Christmas party season is firmly upon us and rather fittingly, the High Court handed down its judgment in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited this week. In that case the Court decided that an employer should not be held vicariously liable for the acts of one of its directors after heavy drinking at the work Christmas party back in 2011.
In this case, a director punched a manager twice, leaving the manager with a life-changing brain injury. The organised Christmas party had taken place at a golf club and the assault then took place at 3am after about 13 of the 24 original attendees had continued drinking in the lobby of their hotel. Immediately before the assault, there had been a heated exchange between the director and the manager about work-related issues.
The Judge found that there was a sufficient distance between the organised event at the golf club and the drinks in the hotel lobby to mean that the director was acting outside the scope of his employment when he assaulted the manager. He found that there was a difference between the drinking sessions (the first session was the organised event which all employees were required to attend and the second session was a "spontaneous post event drink" which employees were not required to attend).
He also rejected the argument that because the heated discussion immediately prior to the assault was work-related, that had to mean that the Director was acting in the course of his employment. He said that that this could lead to results that would clearly not be consistent with the policy underpinning vicarious liability. He gave the example of two colleagues playing golf socially and the conversation turning to work. Just because the conversation is about work, it is said, does not mean that the employees are acting in the course of their employment.
The facts of this case are so extreme that it should go without saying that employers should ensure they don't follow in the footsteps of the director in this case. It does highlight though that care should be taken to encourage good behaviour at the work Christmas party, and if possible to make it clear that at least the 'official' organised Christmas party ends by a specified time. Our advice is to pick a time well before 3am!