During the festive season, work Christmas parties are held aplenty. It’s usually the one time of the year that the whole office gets together to socialise. However, a combination of festive fun and alcohol does not always mix with office politics.
Whilst the vast majority of these events pass without incident, there are occasions when things go wrong. What happens if tempers flare and fights ensue and you get injured? Can your employer be held responsible?
For an employer to be held vicariously liable for the acts of an employee, those acts must be carried out "in the course of employment".
Previous case law has set the following test for establishing vicarious liability:
- What is the nature of the employees job?
- Is there a sufficient "close connection" between the employees job and his wrongful conduct to make it right that the employer should be held liable for his actions?
In one case, a petrol station employee worked for a supermarket chain. Whilst at work he became abusive to a customer and asked him to leave the premises. As the customer left he followed him and subjected him to a violent and unprovoked assault. The court found that there was no "close connection" between the assault and what the employee was employed to do, being to serve customers. They found that the employer could not be responsible for the employees actions.
The customer who had been injured in the assault appealed against the Court's finding and said that a more appropriate test for establishing vicarious liability would be for the court to consider whether there was "representative capacity". In other words whether the employee was acting in the capacity of a representative of the employer at the time of committing the assault.
The Supreme Court held that the employer was liable for the assault that the employee carried out. They said that it was his job to attend to customers, and that his conduct was an unbroken sequence of events leading to the assault. He had not metaphorically taken off his uniform prior to the assault, and he was ordering the customer to leave the employers premises, reinforcing that with violence.
Taking that scenario to a Christmas party event, what happens if you are out at your office party and not in the premises?
In the recent decision of 'Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWCA Civ 214' the Court found that even when the assault occurs away from the premises the employer may still be held responsible.
This case concerned the Christmas party of Northampton Recruitment. After the party had finished a number of employees including Mr Bellman and the Managing Director went to a bar at a local hotel. Whilst they were drinking there Mr Bellman and the Managing Director got into an argument about a work matter. This resulted in Mr Bellman being punched by the Managing Director.
Sadly, Mr Bellman suffered a severe brain injury and he bought a claim against the Company rather than the Managing Director.
Initially Mr Bellman was unsuccessful. The Court said that the company were not liable on the basis that the Managing Director was not acting in the course of his employment. The Judge did not consider the drinks at the hotel were an extension of the Christmas party. He said that what took place was a drunken discussion that arose after the work event had ended. The fact that the conversation in the hotel turned in to a discussion about work did not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability. The drinking session was deemed unconnected to the Company's business.
Mr Bellman appealed the decision and was successful in the Court of Appeal. The Court found that the Managing Director's remit at the company was very wide and that there was a sufficient connection between his employment activities and the assault. The drinking session had occurred on the same evening as the Christmas party which had been paid for by the Managing Director and he had fulfilled his managerial duties for a large part of the evening. The Managing Director was not merely a fellow reveller, he was present as a company representative and therefore the company was held vicariously liable.
This case demonstrates how the courts are interpreting the "close connection" test. The Court did say that the facts in this case were unusual and liability would not arise merely because of an argument about work matters between colleagues where one was more senior than the other, it is to do with whether the person is there in a representative capacity.