The Christmas party – a note for employers

By December 17, 2018Employment, Legal Updates

It is the season when some businesses are planning their office Christmas party and a time for employers and employees to relax and enjoy themselves.   However, responsible employers will have to give some consideration to their staff’s health and safety, especially where alcohol is to be consumed.   This is because of what is known as “vicarious liability”.  It is where an employer can be held liable for the actions of an employee where they are committed “in the course of employment”.

In one case, a supermarket was held vicarious liable for an employee’s unprovoked violent assault on a customer at a petrol station.   It was found there was a ‘sufficiently close connection’ between the assault and the employee’s job of attending to customers.   The employer was therefore held vicariously liable.

More recently, the Court of Appeal has looked at a case concerning the company Christmas party (which we looked at previously ) and has decided the company was liable after all.

In this case the Christmas party was taking place at a golf club and following the party some of the guests including the Managing Director and Sales Manager went onto a hotel.   It was not a planned extension of the party but “an impromptu drink”.   The company however paid the taxi fares for the party guests to the golf club and therefore paid for the taxis to the hotel.

Most of those that went on to the hotel continued to drink alcohol and by the early hours of the morning conversations turned to work matters.   During this, the Managing Director lost his temper and began to lecture the employees.  When the Sales Manager challenged him, the Managing Director swore at him and punched him.   Whilst the Managing Director assaulted him for the second time, the Sales Manager fell to the floor fracturing his skull.   Medical reports later confirmed severe brain damage and it would be unlikely that the Sales Manager would work again.

The High Court initially found that there was insufficient connection between the Managing Director’s role and the assault, and therefore the company was not vicariously liable for the assault on the Sales Manager.

The Court of Appeal however allowed the appeal and found that in fact the attack had arisen due to a mis-use of the Managing Director’s position.   The discussion had been focused on work matters and he had decided to deliver a lecture to his employees which then became “an exercise in laying down the law”.

Therefore, in this case and on these circumstances due to the Managing Director’s wide authority, the nature of the discussions and the assault, the company was held vicarious liable for the Managing Director’s actions.

It is likely that with similar cases the facts and context are going to determine the outcome, but what is notable is that alcohol is often involved. Therefore, one note of caution employers can take from this is to carefully consider what alcohol they will be providing for their employees and whether, for example, a free bar is advisable.    With the availability of social media, and with photographs likely to be taken at such events, it is not only considering the health and safety of the employees at the event, but also having in mind the reputation of the business.

If you have any questions on this topic or any other matters relating to employment law, please do not hesitate to contact us on 01730 268 211 or at lsw@macdonaldoates.co.uk. In the meantime, we hope you have a very merry Christmas.