Punch up at the Christmas party

With Christmas only days away, many employers will have invited their employees to the work's party.  A recent High Court case illustrates what can happen in situations such as these, when some staff consume large quantities of alcohol.

In the case in question, a company had its annual Christmas party at a golf club, following which about half the guests went on to a hotel and some of them carried on drinking.  At three in the morning an altercation occurred where a director (who was also a shareholder) of the company assaulted the sales manager.  They knew each other well, as they had been friends since childhood and were of a similar age.  The incident was caught on CCTV and the director was subsequently charged with assault.

The sales manager suffered a serious injury and made a claim against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for actions of the director, i.e. his assailant.

The High Court reviewed the case law and noted some important points; employers are not liable for an assault by one of their employees merely because it occurred during working hours.  However, neither are employers free from liability just because the assault occurred outside working hours and/or outside of the workplace.

The Court said that matters had to be looked at in the round; for example, what were the functions or what was the field of activities entrusted by the employer to the relevant employee, and what was the nature of his job?  Was there sufficient connection between the position in which the employee was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable.

As background to this case, the Supreme Court decided earlier this year that in Mohamud v Morrison’s Supermarket, Morrison’s was vicariously liable when one of its employees, a petrol pump attendant, assaulted a customer on the forecourt.

In this case, however, the court decided that the employer was not vicariously liable.  Despite this decision, the case demonstrates the potential problems that employers might face at a Christmas party where alcohol is flowing freely.

Our advice to employers would be that they should make it clear to employees what their responsibilities are while attending social functions.  They should also remind them of the expected standards of conduct and that disciplinary rules may still apply – party or no party!

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.