Emma Hamnett: Key Christmas party warnings

Emma Hamnett

In the run-up to Christmas and the dreaded office party, employers should be aware of a recent judgment that means they may be legally responsible for the actions of their staff, even if they take place outside the workplace.

In itself, this is not news, but a recent Court of Appeal ruling has made it almost impossible to see when an employer will not be vicariously liable for the acts of employees.

In October 2018, the Court of Appeal handed down a judgment finding that when the boss of a recruitment firm hit a member of staff at an ‘impromptu’ drinks event, causing him to suffer catastrophic brain damage, the employer was liable for the damage.

Sales manager Clive Bellman was punched to the ground by John Major, managing director at Northampton Recruitment, at an office Christmas party after an argument broke out about the terms offered to a new employee.

The ruling found there was a sufficient connection between Major’s employment and the assault, and that the act of misconduct was triggered by a challenge to his managerial authority, enhanced by Northampton Recruitment’s provision of alcohol.

This case is a distressing example of how a work night out can go badly wrong. Employers usually put people of trust in senior positions and it might be said that Major abused that trust in letting his emotions get the better of him. The judgment, which overruled an earlier High Court decision, makes employers’ potential liability very wide indeed. Organisations must now think carefully about how to protect employees at work events taking place away from their premises.

Organisations should train senior managers and all employees on the notion of vicarious liability and communicate what is expected of them at workplace events. Employers should spell out that overly-intoxicated behaviour or aggression will not be tolerated, and that disciplinary action will result against anyone deemed to have behaved irresponsibly.

It is also important to be clear on when the work event starts and ends, especially when events take place at hotels and employees are free to continue the party.

Emma Hamnett is partner in the Manchester employment team at Clarke Willmott