We report on a case where a company boss assaulted an employee after a Christmas party, once the group had returned to their hotel and started indulging in heavy drinking. Was there enough of a connection between the workplace and the drinks to establish liability on the part of the company?
Mr Bellman, the Claimant in this case was employed by Northampton Recruitment Limited. The company had a Christmas party in 2011, which took place at a golf club, and to which all employees and their wives were invited; 24 in total. Rides home, or to a nearby hotel, plus hotel expenses were paid for by the company.
The Christmas party itself passed without controversy, but certain members of the team, including Mr Bellman, and his boss Major continued drinking back at the hotel.
The conversation swiftly turned to work matters, and one particular controversial issue about the running of an office, during which Mr Major lost his temper. Although Mr Bellman was acting in a non-provocative way, Mr Major punched him twice, the second blow knocking him out and causing brain damage.
The legal question to be answered for the company to be liable (and therefore for its insurance company to pay out) was whether there was a sufficient connection with the employment.
In favour of there being a sufficient connection with the employment, Mr Major had paid for the drinks during the drinking session, had paid for the hotel and the ride there, and the incident arose out of a discussion about a work matter.
On the other hand, the drinking session was impromptu and was not a formal work event.
The Court also held that merely raising a work related topic couldn’t in itself give rise to a sufficient connection between the employment and the party. To say that there was a sufficient connection in every example of this would be to widen liability so far that it may become uninsurable.
On balance, considering these matters, the Court held that the heavy drinking session had been entirely voluntary and was a personal choice of the individuals involved. Matters were so far removed from the employment that there could be no vicarious liability on the part of the company.
This meant that Mr Bellman’s claim lay against Mr Major alone.
The case does have significance in discrimination and other areas of employment law. Claims often arise as a result of Christmas parties and a similar legal test will be applied for liability, namely the closeness of the connection with the workplace.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE COURT OF APPEAL OVERTURNED THIS DECISION IN OCTOBER 2018.