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Court ruling provides 'useful and timely' employer guidance on Christmas party conduct, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 12 Dec 2016 | 2:30 pm | 2 min. read

FOCUS: With Christmas party season in full swing, a recent High Court decision provides very useful and timely guidance on where the line should be drawn between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside.

Clive Bellman was severely injured in 2011 following a disagreement with his friend John Major, who was also the managing director of the company for which he worked. The disagreement took place on the evening of the annual office Christmas party, albeit several hours later at a local hotel. After considering the evidence, the High Court determined that in the circumstances of this case there was no 'vicarious liability'; meaning that the employer, Northampton Recruitment, was not liable for the injury to Bellman.

The law stipulates that employers will be liable for the conduct of their employees where that conduct occurs in the course of their employment and there is sufficient connection between the position in which the employee was employed and the wrongful conduct to make it appropriate for the employer to be held liable.

The difficult issue is in determining where the line should be drawn between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside. Clearly, employers will be responsible for most events that occur at an official Christmas party or other officially-sanctioned work function - but, based on the Bellman case it seems far less likely that the employer's responsibility will extend to post-function events that are not officially approved or sanctioned.

However, as the judge in the case himself recognised, searching for hard and fast rules in this area is a fruitless exercise, and there have certainly been cases in the past where employers have been held liable for the acts of their employees where these have occurred at work-related events that were not necessarily officially sanctioned. In one particular case, in 1997, a chief constable was held vicariously liable for the actions of a police officer in sexually harassing a fellow police officer where the events took place in a pub after work and at a leaving party.

For employers, the guidance has to be that it is helpful to set clear guidelines as to what is expected of employees if they are attending out of hours functions that are connected to work – so, no end to the 'have fun, but remember to be sensible' emails from HR!

The Bellman case

Bellman was an employee of Northampton Recruitment. In 2011 he, along with 23 others, attended the annual office Christmas party at a local golf club. When that concluded some of the group, including Bellman and Major, the managing director of the company, retired to a local hotel where they continued drinking for several hours. The conversation turned to work-related matters, and Bellman and Major had a disagreement which resulted in Major assaulting Bellman to his severe injury.

Bellman sued Northampton Recruitment for damages on the basis that they were vicariously liable for the actions of Major. However, the court disagreed. In deciding, the judge determined that there was not a sufficient connection between Major's responsibilities as managing director and the after-event drinking session. He could not always be seen to be on duty. Once it was determined that the event was unconnected with work, it did not matter that the assault arose out of a work discussion: that could have equally arisen during a social game of golf.

As the judge said, if the mere fact that a discussion was between colleagues and about work was enough for liability to arise, "it would mean that such a company's potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable". The events at the hotel arose from "a drunken discussion ... after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended".

"Given the time and place, when the conversation was, as it was for a significant time, on social or sporting topics, no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of those employees of [the company] present," he said. "That it then veered into a discussion about work cannot provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company that employed them."

Stuart Neilson is an employment law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.