Assault after office Christmas party in Hilton lobby Employer NOT vicariously liable

It’s that time of year again where office Christmas parties are high on the agenda.  A chance to have some festive bants with your colleagues, enjoy a few/a bucket load of drinks, strangle a cat on the karaoke, throw some shapes on the dance floor… and in the case of some employees, take things too far.

Lawyers frequently advise on the legal issues associated with workplace events and parties.  In particular:-

  • Office parties will potentially be considered as an extension of the workplace;
  • Any unlawful acts committed by employees at such events could be “within the course of employment”
  • Employers are liable (vicariously) for any unlawful acts carried out by employees within the course of their employment
  • This means that where employee A wrongs employee B at such an event, employee B can sue either employee A or the employer.
  • Employers are well advised to take all reasonable steps to ensure that staff know the expected standards of behaviour at such events (cue that annual all staff email from HR reminding us all to have fun, but not too much fun).

A timely decision was issued by the High Court this month in the case of Bellman v Northamton Recruitment Limited [2016].  In this case, the claimant (Mr Bellman) was employed by the company.  After their annual Christmas party (to which staff and partners were invited), approximately half of the party moved on to a hotel and continued drinking until the small hours.  This was not a pre-planned extension to the party.  In the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, Mr Major, managing director of the company, punched Mr Bellman twice in the head (bizarrely, the two men had been childhood friends).  Mr Bellman fell and struck his head on a marble floor resulting in brain damage.  Mr Bellman, who is unlikely to return to paid employment, sued the company on the basis that the company had deeper pockets than Mr Major (or rather their insurers had deeper pockets).

The issue for the court was whether, when the punches were thrown, Mr Major was acting within the course of his employment.  The court decided that the assault was not within the course of employment.  Why?

  • The assault was committed after and not during the organised work event.
  • The visit to the Hilton was an “impromptu drink” – many employees went home after the party finished.
  • The judge held that this was not to be regarded as a seamless extension of the party.
  • Those who went to the Hilton were on a voluntary, alcohol fuelled “frolic” of their own.

This decision will be welcomed by employers in that it offers some guidance in relation to where we draw the line with the concept of “within the course of employment”.

However, cases are always fact sensitive and this case should not detract from the usual warning that employers can be liable for alcohol fuelled antics at work related social events.  See my colleague Simon’s wise words here –

Jack Boyle
Associate Solicitor

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