The well worn maxim that Christmas comes earlier each year seems to be particularly true this autumn. Before we had even begun to consider our seasonal advice reminding employers and employees of the potential consequences of over-indulgence at the Christmas party, along comes a judgment from the Court of Appeal in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited  which considers the liability of a company in respect of the actions of its owner/managing director, who assaulted an employee at a drinks session after the company’s Christmas celebration.
Following the company’s Christmas party a smaller group adjourned to their hotel accommodation, in taxis paid for by the company. There they enjoyed more drinks in what wasn’t a planned extension of the Christmas party, but where it was expected that the company would pay for at least some of the drinks. Talk turned to work, to a controversial topic and tempers flared. The managing director violently asserted his authority as the owner of the company and then punched an employee. Sadly the employee suffered brain damage and brought a claim against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director.
The employee initially lost the claim; the High Court found that because the drinks were separate from the Christmas party, there was insufficient connection between the managing director’s employment and the assault for the employer to be held responsible. However, the employee appealed, and the Court of Appeal held that the company was liable for his actions. Although the drinks had been separate to the Christmas party, around 50% of the small company’s staff were present and the managing director had asserted his authority in a discussion focused on business. This was enough for the Court to find that there was sufficient connection between the managing director’s role and his actions for the Company to be held liable for those actions.
The circumstances of the case are unusual. The offending employee was the major shareholder and managing director of a small business, there was some connection between the event and the official company Christmas party and the Court was careful to remark that it would not always be the case that an employer would be liable for the actions of a senior manager who was simply having drinks with colleagues. However the verdict seems to further develop the situations in which there is found to be a sufficient connection between an employee’s actions and their employment for employers to be held vicariously liable and is a timely reminder ahead of the festive season. While no employer will want to play Scrooge, they should bear in mind the risks that can arise from Christmas parties and remind staff about the standards of behaviour expected of them.
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