Vicarious liability – The woes of the office party

22 December, 2016
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

One of the three factors we hi-lighted in our Christmas party blog was ‘behaviour’ of staff. In timely fashion, the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd concerned an alcohol fuelled assault by the managing director (MD) on another member of staff in the early hours after a work Christmas shindig.

 

Vicarious liability

An employer is vicariously liable for the conduct of its employees carried out in the course of their employment.

However, determining whether there is a sufficiently close link between the action and the employment requires an examination of the facts in each scenario – an assault at a work Christmas party could fall within this definition.

 

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

Several employees went for an ‘impromptu’ drink after the Christmas party. At this gathering the MD punched an employee, causing the employee to suffer a severe traumatic brain injury. The injured employee brought a claim for damages against the employer on the basis it was vicariously liable for the actions of the MD. If successful the claim would have been met by the employer’s insurers.

The High Court, in coming to its decision that the employer was not vicariously liable, considered the following:

  • The employer paid the bar tab at the Christmas Party. However, alcohol is often provided at such organised parties and the Christmas party had passed without incident.
  • The assault was committed after and not during the work Christmas party. The after party could not be considered a seamless extension of the Christmas party and there was no expectation on staff to attend.
  • For a significant period of time, the conversation had been about social topics and not about work.
  • Even if the employer paid or was expected to pay the bill at the hotel, the provision of additional alcohol did not support a finding of vicarious liability, because it was so far removed from employment.

 

Risks for employers

The judgment made it clear that determining vicarious liability is not straight forward and that each case will be decided on the facts.

In any event, Christmas parties and other organised work events (for example, where attendance is mandatory) are particularly high risk environments for vicarious liability claims to arise. To minimise the chances of employees carrying out improper conduct it is advisable to clearly set out acceptable standards of behaviour, not to encourage heavy drinking and to make it clear employees are to avoid talking about work matters.