15 November 2018

Office Christmas party altercations: who’s responsible?

A recent Court of Appeal case is a timely reminder of employers’ liabilities at work-related events


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Employment law Leadership and management


A recent Court of Appeal case is a timely reminder of employers’ liabilities at work-related events

With Christmas not far around the corner, and office Christmas parties on the horizon, a recent Court of Appeal case (Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd) serves as an important reminder that an employer may be vicariously liable for its employee’s actions during a party – even if the party takes place outside of company time.


About Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

The facts of the case are tragic. Northampton Recruitment Ltd employed Mr Bellman as a sales manager.  After a work Christmas party at a golf club, some (but not all) attendees, moved on to a hotel for an impromptu ‘after-party’ of sorts. Mr Bellman attended along with the managing director of Northampton Recruitment, Mr Major. During the after-party, in the early hours of the morning, Mr Major and Mr Bellman were involved in an altercation. Mr Major took umbrage at Mr Bellman’s views and gathered staff together at the party to lecture them on the fact that he owned the business, he was in charge, and that he made the decisions. When Mr Bellman challenged him, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman twice. The second punch caused a serious brain injury, which led to Mr Bellman no longer being able to manage his own affairs.

Mr Bellman brought a claim against Northampton Recruitment, claiming that it was vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director. The case made its way through the courts, with the High Court finding that the company was not responsible for the actions of the managing director during an after-party that had no connection to work.

However, the Court of Appeal disagreed. It found that Mr Major was the managing director of the business and, while the altercation occurred during an after-party, it happened during the time at which Mr Major was asserting his authority and clearly stating that he was acting in his capacity as the company’s managing director.

Furthermore, it also found that the drinks during, and taxis to, the after-party were all paid for by the company – irrespective of it being an impromptu and voluntary event. The Court also found that, even if the party was not a company arranged event, Mr Major had made a deliberate choice to wear his ‘managing director hat’ when he began to lecture fellow employees. Mr Major’s seniority was a significant factor and, taking all the facts into consideration, the Court found there was sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job and the assault for his actions to be considered ‘in the course of employment’, rendering the company vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.


Lessons for employers

This case highlights the importance of employers understanding that they may be liable for the actions of their staff even if the staff members’ actions take place after working hours. Keep things cheerful and light through the festive period and encourage employees to drink responsibly and stay safe through the party season.


Rafia Ahmad is a senior solicitor at ESP Law Ltd. This post was powered by esphr – a Ciphr strategic partner. Talk to a very different employment law firm and HR business partner on 0333 006 2929 or find out more at esphr.co.uk.