A recent ‘Christmas party’ case in the High Court

12.12.2016

In the recent case of Bellman -v- Northampton Recruitment Limited, the High Court has held that the company was not vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director following a work Christmas party.
A number of employees went back to a hotel after the end of the work Christmas party. It was not a pre-planned extension of the party and not everyone went – however, one of those who did go was the managing director of the company. After a heavy drinking session the conversation turned to work matters at around 2am and the discussion became heated. The manging director punched another employee twice. That employee fell and injured his head; he sustained brain damage and sued the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable.
The High Court held that the company was not liable. Although they had been discussing work-related matters, the event that had been organised by the employer had ended some time ago, and the employees who attended the further ‘impromptu drinks’ were effectively on a ‘frolic of their own’. It was important that a clear line could be drawn between the earlier party (at a golf club) and the subsequent drinks at a nearby hotel. Many of the employees had already left and the managing director was no longer acting in the course of his employment, as he had been earlier in the evening when he was the organiser / host of the Christmas party. Even assuming that the company might have paid the bill for some or all of the alcohol consumed at the hotel, it was too far removed from the employment for the company to be vicariously liable.
This is a sad case which serves as a cautionary tale; if the assault had taken place at the Christmas party itself or at a pre-planned and sanctioned drinks event / ‘after-party’ then it is likely that the employer would have been liable.