Can an employer be vicariously liable for injury caused at an impromptu work after party?
If you are injured at the work Christmas party, who is at fault?
Accidents can happen anywhere, and in some cases, injuries may not be the fault of the person who sustained them. Obviously, if a person drinks too much, falls over and hurts themselves, this may well be their own fault. Yet not every accident can be viewed in the same way.
What's the legal position after an accident at a work social?
All employers must have employer’s liability insurance, which covers any instances of injury caused to employees when the employer has been negligent in some way. This insurance is mandatory under the law, and employers could receive fines of up to £2,500 per day if they don’t have it.
Employers also have a legal duty to make sure their work Christmas party is safe to attend. If they plan the event at work or at any other venue, they are responsible by law to make sure the event is safe and poses no hazards or dangers. This means if an employee is injured at that venue and they were not to blame for the injury, there is the potential to make a claim for compensation against the employer.
There is an important distinction though, that if an employee were to leave the party and move on to another location and the accident happened there, the employer surely could not be held liable.
Or could they? A recent case in the Court of Appeal, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, shows that potentially, an employer might be held liable.
Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd
Mr Bellman was a Sales Manager for the recruitment firm and Mr Major was the firm’s Managing Director. A Christmas party was organised. At its end, Mr Major arranged taxis to transport staff to a hotel where they continued drinking, with drinks mainly paid for by the company.
After a couple of hours, an argument broke out about a new employee’s placement and terms. Mr Major got cross and summoned staff to give them a long lecture on his authority. Mr Bellman questioned Mr Major's decisions and Mr Major punched him. This caused brain damage.
The court was asked to decide whether the company was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. The judge at first instance held not, but the Court of Appeal disagreed.
Kate Fretten, a Partner in our Employment Team, says "Two key matters needed to be considered: firstly the nature of the employee’s job – to be construed broadly and objectively, and secondly whether there was a sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate."
Mr Major owned the company, was its most senior employee and directing mind, and had full control over how he conducted his role. When he lectured his staff at the after party, he was wearing his metaphorical Managing Director’s hat and establishing his authority in that role.
Additionally, that party was not a purely social event happening to involve colleagues but a follow-on from an organised work event attended by most of the company’s employees, where the company paid for taxis and drinks. In those circumstances, there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role. As such, the company was vicariously liable for his actions.
The full judgement of the case can be read here, on BAILII, where you can find British and Irish case law & legislation, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.
Be wary of the work social...?
Kate concludes "‘Tis the season of the office Christmas party and it’s not just the rumour mill, a fashion faux pas or spilling a drink that employers should be wary of. As estimated 40% of people have had an embarrassing mishap or minor accident at their work Christmas celebration, and amusingly it is reported that lawyers and HR professionals are the most likely to fall over at an office Christmas party! Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd shows how things can spiral and end up having horrendous consequences, even before the punch was thrown there were some HR hazards awaiting the return to the office."
How to ensure acceptable conduct at work parties
Kate has put together some tips on ensuring everyone partakes in the Christmas spirit without taking things too far:
- Distinguish between those social events where there will probably be vicarious liability and social events that are unlikely to result in vicarious liability.
- In advance of office parties, take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from carrying out particular acts.
- Provide a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at office parties and what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable.
- At the office party itself, put two or three managers in charge of monitoring the activities of staff and their intake of alcohol.
- Take any reasonable precautions to protect employees from third party harassment.
At Frettens, all of our solicitors offer a free initial meeting or chat on the phone to answer your questions. If this article raises issues for you or your business, please call us on 01202 499255 and Kate or Paul will be happy to discuss it with you.