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It’s the season to be jolly, and how much more festive can you be than throwing a party for all of your staff?  Even if the party isn’t a ‘Christmas’ one, many businesses are choosing to celebrate ‘post-COVID’ with celebrations to thank staff for their efforts.  Here, we look at the duty on employers, and what happens when it goes wrong.

Vicarious liability

The principle of vicarious liability is that an employer is held responsible for the acts of its employees when they are acting ‘in the course of employment’.  The test used by the courts is two-fold:  

  1. Is the relationship between the wrongdoer and the party alleged to be liable capable of giving rise to vicarious liability? If so,
  2. Is there a sufficiently close connection between the actions and the employment insofar that it will be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable?

For example, an employer can be vicariously liable for an employee’s acts of discrimination or harassment which take place ‘in the course of employment’ unless the employer has taken all reasonable steps to prevent that kind of discrimination occurring. An employer must be proactive in this respect, as any failure to identify and guard against this kind of behaviour can come back to bite them.

The development of the ‘close connection’ test is making it increasingly difficult for employers to avoid a finding of vicarious liability.

The main legal issues you need to be aware of are:

  • health and safety legislation
  • common law duty of care
  • discrimination and harassment

Case in Focus

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

Mr Bellman worked as a sales manager for Northampton Recruitment.

In December 2011 NR held its Christmas party at a local golf club. Most of the employees and their partners and a few guests attended.  A substantial amount of alcohol was consumed by all.

As the party was finishing, around midnight, the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment – Mr Major – decided to lecture staff.  His lecturing included telling staff that he was the boss, and he could do what he liked.

Mr Bellman questioned Mr Major’s decisions, which Mr Major took offence to, so he hit Mr Bellman twice, knowing him out.  Mr Bellman hit the floor upon being knocked out, and suffered traumatic and life-changing brain injuries.

Mr Bellman sued Northampton Recruitment claiming it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s assault on him.  At first, the High Court dismissed his claim, finding that it was a ‘personal choice’ to consume more alcohol, long after work had ended.

However, Mr Bellman appealed this decision, arguing that Mr Major’s job had not been taken into account and that there was sufficiently close connection.

The Court of Appeal agreed with Mr Bellman – it found that Mr Major’s position of seniority was a significant factor.  He was in a position where he could dominate and re-assert his authority whenever he liked.  Consequently, it found in Mr Bellman’s favour.

Food For Thought

Whilst throwing a party for staff may seem like a lovely idea, which it is, there are some practical considerations employers should think about before the party goes ahead.  These include:

And Finally

Enjoy the upcoming festive season and don’t let cases like this put you off – with the right safeguards and controls in place you can still enjoy a celebration.

If you would like any assistance with reviewing any current policies or guidance you have in this regard, please get in touch.  If you are a retained client please contact us in the usual way.

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