Monday, December 05, 2016

A Case About The Office Christmas Party - Beating the Christmas Rush

At this time of year employment lawyers fall over themselves to put out guides to employers about the perils of the office Christmas Party and the legal liabilities that can arise as a result.

This is tedious and predictable and I am not going to do it.

What I will do instead is report on a High Court Judgment which has got in ahead of all the competition in this area.

Mr Bellman worked for Northampton Recruitment Limited. One of the owners of the business was his friend John Major (not that one.)

On 17th December 2011 the office Christmas Party took place at a Golf Club in Northamptonshire. At the end of the evening some of those present, including Messrs Bellman and Major, decamped to the Hilton Hotel where they continued to drink,

They were still going strong at 3.00 a.m.

At this point, no doubt considerably the worse for wear, Mr Major launched an unprovoked attack on Mr Bellman. This caused Mr Bellman to suffer extremely serious brain injuries. He is highly unlikely to ever work again and had to have a Litigation Friend for the proceedings as he no longer had capacity to make decisions.

Mr Bellman sued the company for damages for his injuries. Mr Major was originally a Defendant but the Claim against him was not pursued as it was concluded that he would not be good for the money.

Astonishingly the CPS decided not to prosecute (Mr Bellman having said he did not want to get his friend into trouble, but his vulnerable state at the time of making that comment appears to have been overlooked) although this was subsequently overturned following a complaint.

The company resisted the Claim on the basis that Mr Major was not, they said, acting in the course of his employment when the incident occurred.

The High Court, whilst it had considerable sympathy for Mr Bellman, agreed.

The question of whether something occurs in the course of employment is a question of fact in every case.

Whilst the context here was that the incident followed the office Christmas Party (and it is well established that incidents which occur at work-funded or work-organised events can give rise to liability, even if they occur well away from the workplace), the actual assault had followed an extended drinking session that was at a different venue from and not part of the actual Party.

The conversation had turned to work just before the assault but the general context of the drinking session had been social and although in one sense as a manager Mr Major was always engaged with consideration of what would further the interests of the company this did not mean that he was permanently "on call" and therefore that everything he did was in the course of his employment.

Looking at all of the circumstances, there was insufficient connection between the assault and Mr Major's employment to make it appropriate for liability to arise.

This is a first instance decision and it may yet be appealed.

It should be borne in mind that this does not mean that employers cannot be liable for incidents that happen after the Christmas Party.