In workplaces across the country careful plans are being made for the office Christmas party. A recent decision from the Court of Appeal acts as a reminder that while ‘tis the season to be jolly too much festive cheer of the liquid variety may result in the need for a new job by New Year.
In the case of Bellman (a protected party by his litigation friend) v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWCA Civ 2214, the employer’s Managing Director arranged a Christmas party at the local golf club that went on long into the night. Many guests were staying at a hotel nearby (at the employer’s expense) and the Managing Director arranged for taxis to take anyone who wanted to go back to the hotel for after party drinks. Around half of the employer’s staff went back to the hotel, including the Sales Manager, and the drinks continued to flow. At around 2am the conversation turned to work. Annoyed at being questioned about certain management decisions, the Managing Director summoned the remaining staff and began to lecture them – he was in charge; he would do what he wanted to do; the decisions were his to take; he paid their wages etc. When the Sales Manager challenged a particular decision in a non-aggressive manner, the Managing Director appears to have lost all control and subjected the Sales Manager to a brutal physical attack which led to the Sales Manager suffering traumatic brain damage and life changing injuries.
Considering the case the Court of Appeal found that although the unscheduled and voluntary drinking session in the hotel was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party, the Managing Director was not merely a fellow reveller. He was present as Managing Director, a dominant position with a supervisory role which enabled him to assert and re-assert his authority over others. He misused that position with tragic results. It may have been drinks in a hotel in the early hours of the morning but the Court of Appeal did not consider that the roles of those attending changed or if they did that the role of Managing Director was not re-engaged.
In the circumstances the Court of Appeal found there was sufficient connection between the Managing Director’s field of activities and the assault on the Sales Manager to render it just that the employer was vicariously liable for his actions.
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