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With the office Christmas party season now in full swing, how do you survive the festive season without mishap?

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The office Christmas party can provide the perfect opportunity for employees to relax, have fun, and celebrate the end of a long year. However it can also be a legal minefield for employers, especially when alcohol is involved.

The recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment is one such example of this. On 17th September 2011, Mr Bellman attended his office Christmas party at a local golf club. A high volume of alcohol was consumed and, at the end of the night, just over half of the attendees spontaneously decided to carry on the party at the local Hilton hotel. At the hotel, more alcohol was consumed and an argument broke out about the deployment of employees. Mr Major, a director and shareholder of the defendant company was heard to shout “If I want him based in Northampton he will be [obscenity removed] based there”. He then assaulted Mr Bellman, punching him twice and knocking him to the floor. As a result, Mr Bellman suffered significant brain damage.

Mr Bellman brought a claim against his employer. Central to his case was that the post-event drinks were a seamless extension of the Christmas party and therefore ‘in the course of employment’. Also relevant was the fact that the argument which led to the assault was about issues at work, supporting Mr Bellman’s assertion that the act occurred in the course of, and was closely connected to, Mr Major’s employment.

The High Court held that the employer was not vicariously liable. The assault was committed after, and not during, the Christmas party; the post-Christmas party drinks were very different to the organised Christmas party and unconnected with the employer’s business. Although at the time of the assault conversation was work-related, much of the conversation up until that point had been focused around social topics. Accordingly, the Court held that the assault did not happen in the course of Mr Major’s employment, and there was not a sufficient connection for his employer to be held liable for the act.

What this means for employers

As the festive season approaches, employers should bear in mind that they can be held vicariously liable for any behaviour at work parties, including discriminatory acts or harassment. Although in Mr Major’s case the High Court took a common sense approach and refused to hold his employers liable, if the assault had taken place just a few hours earlier, during the Christmas party rather than after it, the result could well have been very different.

It is therefore worth giving staff a gentle reminder that, although you want them to enjoy the celebrations, the same standards of behaviour that are expected in the workplace still apply at any Christmas party. This is the case even if the event is held offsite and outside of normal working hours.

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