Can an organisation be held liable for too much ‘punch’ after a workplace social?

Summer soiree season is now officially upon us, but for many organisations the hangover might prevail long after the heat disappears. A summer party can be an ideal way to celebrate team achievements and thank employees for their hard work. However, with alcohol freely flowing, tensions can often bubble to the surface and unpleasant incidents can occur. Where such incidents arise during the course of employment, an employer can be responsible for the wrongdoing of its employee. 

In establishing responsibility, the principal focus is on whether the employee’s wrongdoing can be regarded as occurring ‘in the course of employment’.

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court considered whether an employer was liable for one employee's violent attack on another following a company party.

A company held a Christmas party for its employees. After the party, some employees arranged between themselves to carry on to a hotel for drinks. Although this was not a planned part of the evening, the company paid for taxis to the hotel and it was expected that they would pay for some of the drinks.

Two employees were later involved in a fight when one employee (Mr M), who was also a director and shareholder of the company, attacked another employee (Mr B), a manager, causing him severe brain damage. 

Those acting on Mr B’s behalf brought a claim for damages against his employer (the company) on the basis that it was responsible for Mr M’s wrongdoing. The principal issue for the court to consider was whether Mr M was acting in the course of his employment so as to make the company responsible for his actions as his employer. 

The court held that, as the blow had been struck after the party during a private drinking session, the employer was not responsible. This decision was reached on the basis that Mr M was not on duty just because he was in the company of other employees and that the assault was committed after a work social event, not during, which arose because of entirely voluntary and personal choices.

However, the court said that had the incident taken place during the Christmas party, the employer may have been held responsible for the assault. 

An employer is not automatically liable for an assault during working hours or automatically free from liability just because it occurred outside work. Each case will turn on its facts.

There is strict liability in such vicarious liability cases where an employer is held to be responsible for their employee's conduct. Therefore, it is no defence for an employer to show that it told its employees that the conduct complained of was prohibited.  

Vicarious liability has been described as a ‘loss distribution device based on grounds of social and economic policy’. Because of the facts in this case, the court felt unable to hold the employer vicariously liable, noting: “The rule must have proper boundaries; it is not endless.”

So how do you reduce the risk of an incident occurring and of being held responsible for an employee’s wrongdoing? The first step should be to ensure that appropriate policies explaining what conduct is expected from employees are in place. Additionally, make sure that there is open communication so that issues at work are dealt with effectively, including an effective grievance procedure, reducing the risk of problems escalating at social events.

Simon Whitehead is a partner and employment solicitor at HRC Law