The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment concerned an incident that occurred in the lobby of a hotel after a works Christmas party.

A Director and shareholder of the Defendant company, Mr John Major assaulted the Claimant, Mr Bellman by punching him twice and knocking him to the floor.  Mr Bellman suffered brain damage as a result after hitting his head on a marble floor.

The assault of Mr Bellman employed as a Manager of the Defendant took place at 3.00am after the work’s Christmas party when Mr Major and Mr Bellman as well as other members of staff, went to a hotel to continue drinking.

In this case, the Court considered whether at the time of the assault, the Director was acting in the scope of his employment meaning that the Company would be vicariously liable.

In an employment relationship, vicarious liability involves an employer being liable for the wrongs committed by an employee where there is a sufficient connection with the employment.  It can arise even if the employer itself has committed no wrong.

The Court held that the Defendant company could have been liable if the assault had taken place at the Christmas party itself.  However, it took place after the Christmas party had concluded and therefore the Company was not liable.

This case provides an important reminder to employers that they can be liable for inappropriate and improper behaviour between members of staff at work’s events including a Christmas party which is particularly risky where alcohol is free flowing.

The legal test where there is an employment relationship is to consider whether the connection between the employment and the wrongful act or omission is so close that it would be just and reasonable to impose the liability.

The Courts have considered a range of wrongdoings where vicarious liability might apply.  Some cases have found wrongdoings of arson, battery, indecent assault, defamation of character, theft and fraud to lead to vicarious liability against the employer.

Here are some tips to ensure your celebrations this year go smoothly:

  • Code of Conduct – Remind employees in advance that you hope everyone enjoys the celebrations but that there are standards of conduct that must be adhered to in order to ensure that everyone has a good time. State that illegal drug taking, drink driving, verbal or physical abuse, drunk/disorderly behaviour, sexual or discriminatory harassment, violence and unauthorised absence the day after the celebrations will not be permitted and will result in disciplinary action. Make sure the policies in your staff handbook are clear and accessible to staff.
  • Alcohol – Be aware that if you serve free alcohol, the risk of inappropriate behaviour is likely to increase. If you decide to provide free alcohol, consider placing a limit on the amount provided and consider serving food.  Make sure members of staff that choose not to drink alcohol for religious reasons or personal choice are respected.
  • Invite everyone – Don’t forget to invite any staff who are on maternity/paternity leave and agency, fixed-term, temporary and part-time workers
  • Venue accessibility – Make sure the venue is accessible for disabled workers.
  • Transport arrangements – Remind staff not to drink and drive and consider organising a mini bus to take staff home or accommodation. Prevent work vehicles being taken to functions unless the driver is a designated sober driver.
  • Christmas party romance – Be clear on your stance on relationships at work particularly between a line manager and direct report.
  • Social media – Staff may post videos and photographs of the party on social media. Make sure you have a social media policy in your staff handbook making the rules clear on what is and is not acceptable.

If you require any further advice, please contact Farleys employment lawyers on 0845 287 0939 or complete our online contact form.