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High Court rules on office Christmas party punch up

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Can an employer be vicariously liable for the actions of an employee at a Christmas party?

The High Court has recently held that a company was not liable for the actions of one of its directors at the office Christmas party, after the director in question assaulted a manager of the company after the party had ended.

Vicarious liability is a form of secondary liability where someone (or more commonly, a company) is held liable for a wrong committed by someone else.  Such a liability usually arises in employment relationships, where companies can be held liable for the actions of their employees.

On this occasion however, the company was held not to be liable.  Following the party, the director manager, and others carried on drinking at a hotel.  The assault then occurred at around 3am where the manager was punched twice in the face, causing him to fall and hit his head on a marble floor.  The manager suffered a serious brain injury and decided to pursue the company, rather than the individual who assaulted him.

The key question determined by the High Court was whether the director was “acting in the course, or scope of his employment”, so as to make the company vicariously liable? 

Despite the fact that the argument which led to the assault allegedly being to do with work matters, the High Court decided that as the assault had occurred after the party and during a private drinking session and therefore the Company was not vicariously liable. The High Court found that the drinking session was an entirely independent, voluntary and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the company's business. The High Court went on to find that there was insufficient connection between the position in which the director was employed and the assault to make it right for the company to be held liable.

Despite the outcome, the case provides a useful and timely reminder to employers of the potential dangers that surround office Christmas parties, or any other office event as had the incident occurred during the party itself, the Company could well have been held liable.

Our recent article for companies dealing with issues through the winter months provides further information on how to deal with office party events.