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A cautionary tale on workplace parties

BY Paman Singh
Employment Law & HR

A note of caution for employers if they have any employees who wish to enact their Mike Tyson or Ronda Roussey impersonations.

The Court of Appeal has found that an employer can be held vicariously liable for the unlawful actions of a member of its staff if these take place in the course of their employment, specifically, the boss landing a right-left combo on the jaw of an employee.

In this case, the Managing Director of a small Company, Mr Major, organised a Christmas party for employees and their partners. At the end of the party, the employees returned to the hotel Mr Major had booked for them around midnight. Instead of going to bed, most stayed up drinking and talking in the lobby. Around 2 am, the conversation turned to work. Mr Major became angry after one of his decisions was criticised and he informed those employees still around he owned the company and could do what he liked.

One of his employees continued to challenge Mr Major, who responded by hitting him twice in an unprovoked attack. Mr Bellman was knocked out and his injuries caused severe brain damage.

The High Court initially said the company was not responsible. The fact that the attack was triggered by a work-related discussion was not sufficient to bring the encounter within the course of Mr Major's employment.

On appeal, The Court of Appeal said the company was responsible for the actions of its MD, even though the assault took place some hours after the end of the Christmas party at an impromptu gathering.

This was because Mr Major's role gave him power and authority over his staff which he grossly misused. He was not a "fellow reveller" and had used his position as MD to berate his staff and to attack Mr Bellman.

Whilst this decision shouldn’t inspire a complete rethink of how employers consider the actions of senior personnel, it ought to be a note of caution; it is clear that an employee could be personally liable for any such assault, but if the perpetrator is in a position of power within the organisation; and there is a strong connection between that position and his/her wrongful conduct, then the employer could also be dragged into litigation. It also won’t matter whether the incident takes place at work, at a work-related event or even after this – a useful reminder given that we are fast approaching the most dreaded day of the year for HR professionals; the Christmas Party.

Keep an eye out for LAW’s guidance in the next month to ensure you steer clear of any party pitfalls.

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