‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas…

‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas…

We are now well into December and thoughts will be turning to Christmas celebrations in most workplaces across Jersey and Guernsey. At the same time, in a tradition which is almost as old as the office Christmas party itself, employment specialists (like us!) will be warning of the possible pitfalls and risks associated with such joyous gatherings.

There is no point dwelling on the possible dangers in this blog because it is now well established that Christmas parties, especially those which the employer has organised and paid for, are very likely to be considered to be an extension of the work place. This means that employers can be held responsible for what goes on at the party, including liability for discrimination, harassment and personal injury. Likewise, employers can discipline employees for any misdemeanours they commit at the party.

But, how far does the employer’s responsibility extend? For example, is an employer liable for events that happen at an after-party drinking session? This is the very question that the UK High Court had to grapple with recently in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited. Yes, it is UK law but remember that Jersey’s courts will look to UK case law if there isn’t a local precedent.

As many companies do, Northampton Recruitment Limited (“NRL”) held a Christmas party for its employees. After the party had ended, just over half of the guests at the party went back to the hotel where most of them were staying the night, to continue drinking.

It was during this after-party event that a Mr Major, who was a director and shareholder of NRL, assaulted Mr Bellman by punching him. Unfortunately, Mr Bellman suffered brain damage as a result of the assault and is unable to work again. Mr Bellman argued that NRL should be vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions because he was assaulted at a work do.

The court said that NRL could have been liable if Mr Major had punched Mr Bellman during the Christmas party itself but it went on to find that the assault in the hotel occurred during a private drinking session rather than during the work party. As a result, NRL was not vicariously liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries.

Although the employer was found not to be liable in this case, it does highlight the fact that employers can be liable for the improper behaviour of their employees at work events. Of course, employers cannot completely remove any risk associated with such festive celebrations but they can minimise it by:

  • Reminding staff that fighting, excessive drinking and inappropriate language and behaviour are not tolerated.
  • Keeping an eye on the amount of alcohol that their employees are drinking.
  • Highlighting the possible consequences for an employee if they bring the employer into disrepute because of any social media post they make.
  • Providing food and non-alcoholic alternatives throughout the evening.

If you do have a question or an issue does arise, remember that Law At Work is open over the festive period to provide advice and support for employers. All things well, however, you will have a relaxing, enjoyable break and the whole team at LAW wish our clients a Merry Christmas and New Year.

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