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Handle the works party with care, or risk a not-so-merry Christmas

22nd December 2016

Dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others — that is how a Christmas works party was recently described in the High Court.

The unfortunate but illuminating case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd. (December 2016) centred on the dangers of excessive drinking at workplace parties and considered issues surrounding vicarious liability: the conditions under which a defendant company is liable for the actions of an employee.

The case featured Northampton Recruitment managing director Mr Major, a significant shareholder of a small HGV driver recruitment company employing 11 members of staff. The claimant, Mr Bellman, worked for the company as a sales manager. After a Christmas party for staff and their partners at a golf clubhouse in December 2011, many partygoers took taxis to a local hotel in which they had booked rooms, and most continued drinking in the hotel lobby into the small hours. As 3am approached, and when only a handful of revellers remained, the talk turned to company politics.

During the course of the discussions Mr Major felt that his authority had been challenged and an argument culminated in Mr Major assaulting Mr Bellman, who sustained life-changing brain injury as a result of the punching he received.

The fact that Mr Major had violently assaulted Mr Bellman was not in dispute; what was in question was whether the defendant company was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. Vicarious liability requires the wrongdoer to be an employee of the defendant company (or in a relationship akin to employment) and the wrongdoing that is committed must be sufficiently connected with the employee’s role and position in employment.

In this case the judge decided the defendant company was not vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct, ruling that the post-party gathering of drinkers at the hotel did not constitute a corporate event and that Mr Major was no longer acting in the course of his employment, even though the argument that led to the assault related to work matters.

Whatever your attitude towards employment-related festivities, it is worth sparing a moment to appreciate the myriad dangers that could overturn merriment this Christmas season. But if things do go wrong, and you feel you need expert legal advice and support, get in touch with the George Ide team — we’re here to help.

Garry Sleet. Personal injury department.

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