As the festive celebrations begin, employers are encouraged to take sensible steps ahead of staff Christmas parties to prevent the possibility of legal situations or claims arising.
If a serious incident takes place between staff members, employers could be held responsible for it under the legal principle of ‘vicarious liability’. This broadly means that the employer is going to be held responsible if a member of staff causes injury or harm in circumstances which are sufficiently closely connected with employment.
Staff Christmas parties may be in something of in a grey area here. If the party is an official work party and employees’ attendance is mandatory, that would definitely tend to suggest events would be sufficiently closely connected so that the employer would be responsible. But it is far less clear where to draw the line if some continue their festivities well into the late evening.
In 2011, an employee was seriously assaulted by his Managing Director after the company’s Christmas Party, at a different hotel. He brought a claim against the company, arguing that it was legally responsible – vicariously liable – for the actions of the Managing Director because the events after the party were still connected to his employment. The case went to trial and the judge concluded, just last December, that what happened at the hotel was “independent, voluntary, and of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the defendant’s business.”
In this case the incident had happened after the conclusion of the Christmas Party but had it occurred during the officially sanctioned part of the night, the judge could well have found in favour of the victim and held the employer responsible. Although the claim did not succeed, the decision has been appealed and will be back court in April 2018.
All of this should act as a warning to employers that the Christmas Party – and perhaps events following on from it – is not necessarily disconnected from work and that employers need to ensure best practice when it comes to workplace interaction.
As Peter Campbell, Partner, BLM Belfast explained: “This case brings real focus on the responsibility which employers have for employees at social events, and particularly staff Christmas parties.
“BLM recommends employers should: clearly set out when the organised part of the night ends; advise about the dangers of over-indulgence; and emphasise the need for staff to make suitable travel and/or accommodation arrangements in advance. Remembering still with all this planning and preparation in place to relax and have an enjoyable evening”