When organising a work Christmas party, employers face a long checklist of things to consider including venue choice, catering, drinks, music, entertainment, decorations and transportation. Amid these considerations, it’s crucial not to overlook the added responsibility of staff behaviour.
Vicarious liability is one of the most important concerns for organisations planning their annual festive gathering. Under this rule of law, employers may be held accountable for the actions of their employees during work-related events, even if they occur outside of regular working hours and away from the workplace. In the eyes of the law, the Christmas party will be deemed “in the course of employment”, and as such, employers will shoulder the responsibility for their employees’ conduct.
Despite its seemingly unfair nature, employers can be held liable for any acts of discrimination, harassment, or victimisation committed by their employees, regardless of whether the employer was aware or approved of the action or comment constituting harassment. An illustrative case is an incident between Mr Major and Mr Bellman at Northampton Recruitment Ltd’s Christmas party in December 2011.
Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd
Northampton Recruitment Ltd held a work Christmas party for its staff at a golf club. Following this, some of the guests went to a hotel bar. Mr Major, the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd, and Mr Bellman, a sales manager, were amongst the group.
One of the topics of conversation was about a new hire. Mr Major lost his temper and lectured the group, explaining that he was the owner, made the decisions and paid their wages. When challenged in a non-aggressive way by Mr Bellman, Mr Major swore at him and punched him twice. This resulted in Mr Bellman suffering from traumatic brain damage.
Mr Bellman proceeded to make a claim for damages, arguing that the Northampton Recruitment Ltd was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct. While the High Court initially ruled that the agency was not vicariously liable for the Managing Director’s assault on Mr Bellman, because it considered that the drinks at the hotel were not planned and had occurred at a different location to the party’s venue, the Court of Appeal adopted a different perspective.
The Court of Appeal Ruling
The Court of Appeal followed the Supreme Court judgment in Mohamud v W M Morrison Supermarkets PLC, which set out the following test:
- What are the “field of activities” entrusted by the employer to the employee?
- Is there enough of a connection between the “field of activities” and the wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held vicariously liable?
The Court of Appeal noted that “the unscheduled drinking session was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party… The venue had changed, there was a temporal gap between party and drinks, albeit relatively short, and attendance at the drinking session was voluntary. However, it seems to me that the drinking session must be seen against the background or in the context of the evening’s events… The drinks occurred on the same evening as the work event which had been paid for and orchestrated by Mr Major on behalf of Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Mr Major had already been fulfilling his managerial duties for a large part of the evening. Having orchestrated the party, he organised and paid for the taxis to the hotel and continued to provide drinks which were to be paid for by Northampton Recruitment Ltd”.
The Court concluded: “In summary, it seems to me that given the whole context, and despite the time and place at which the assault occurred, Mr Major’s position of seniority persisted and was a significant factor. He was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to assert his authority over the staff who were present…”
Therefore, in this case, it deemed that there was sufficient connection between Mr Major’s field of activities and the assault to hold Northampton Recruitment Ltd vicariously liable.
Lord Justice Irwin made sure to highlight that the facts of this case were unusual and such cases are likely to be rare.
This ruling serves as a reminder to employers that they can be held accountable for their employees’ behaviour at work events, contrary to common misconception.