Employer defends injuries claim for assault after office Christmas party

Christmas party

Christmas parties are perhaps the most popular fixture in the work social calendar. But unfortunately, as alcohol flows, regrettable incidents can occur. Often these are minor matters that are easily cleared up, but others can have serious repercussions for employers. A recent High Court case provides a sobering reminder of this.

The court had to rule on whether an employer was vicariously liable for an assault by one its staff that left the victim, another staff member, brain damaged.

The incident

The incident happened in Northampton in December 2011. After a work’s Christmas party at a golf club some of the gathering moved to a nearby hotel for early-hours drinks. There the two employees, sales manager Clive Bellman and managing director John Major, reportedly argued about a work-related matter. Mr Major then punched Mr Bellman twice, causing him to fall and hit his head. As a result, he suffered a fractured skull and a severe traumatic brain injury. Mr Major was arrested and charged with assault.

The case

Mr Bellman, who has no memory of the incident because of the brain damage he sustained, sought damages from Northampton Recruitment Ltd, which employed both men. His legal team argued that as their employer the firm should be held vicariously liable for the assault. Mr Bellman’s barrister told the court that the attack was ‘not something personal’ but rather was ‘closely connected with John Major’s employment as managing director’.

The employer’s barrister conceded that the CCTV footage confirmed that Mr Major assaulted Mr Bellman. However, he maintained that Northampton Recruitment should not be found vicariously liable for the assault, as the hotel gathering where it occurred had not been pre-planned and had nothing to do with work. The fact that Mr Major was Mr Bellman’s boss was ‘merely incidental’, he told the court. ‘Mr Major was not on duty and the actions of Mr Major cannot be said to be inextricably interwoven with the carrying out of his duties as a manager’.

The Daily Mail reported that the claimant was seeking £1 million in compensation.

The judgment

The High Court ruled in favour of the employer, whom it did not find vicariously liable for the injuries caused by its employee, Mr Major. However, the judge held that the employer could have been liable if the assault had taken place at the Christmas party itself. As the assault occurred afterwards, at a private drinking session, Mr Major was not deemed to be ‘acting in the course or scope of his employment’.

Vicarious liability claims and office parties

As this case illustrates, an employer can be vicariously liable for the unlawful acts of its employees and this is likely to extend to your firm’s Christmas party, even if it takes place out of hours and outside the office. This also includes acts that breach discrimination law.

For example, in Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police v Stubbs, a woman was sexually harassed by a fellow police officer when attending a pub immediately after work and at a leaving party for a colleague. These gatherings were attended by a number of fellow police officers and it was found that there was a sufficient connection with the employment for the Chief Constable to be vicariously liable.

Similarly, in Livesey v Parker Merchanting, sexual harassment by a colleague at a Christmas party was found to be within the course of employment, as was harassment that continued in a car journey on the way home from the party.

Expert legal advice on avoiding vicarious liability claims

While a court will assess each case on its facts, as an employer you can manage the risks by taking practical steps to reduce the likelihood of a vicarious liability claim.

For expert legal advice on safeguarding your business against such claims please contact Employment Law Partner Paul Maynard at paul.maynard@gabyhardwicke.co.uk or 01323 435900. To learn about Paul’s skills and experience please view his website profile.

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