By Alexandra Bonner, partner at City law firm Goodman Derrick LLP.
Many employers are alive to the potential for problems at the annual Christmas party and prepare accordingly. They would do well to remember that although the festive season is over, there will inevitably be other alcohol-fuelled work events to throughout the course of the year.
Employers have an obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while they are at work. It would therefore be prudent to remind employees who are scheduled to attend a local or international conference that although they may be away from their normal place of work, they will still be working and the usual conduct rules will apply. It would also be sensible to advise staff that should they consume alcohol at any related social events they should do so in moderation as they will still be representing their employer. This is important because employers can be liable for the acts of their errant employees if those acts take place in the course of employment. What “in the course of employment” means will depend on the particular facts.
The recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited considered the liability of an employer in such circumstances. Northampton’s managing director had arranged a company Christmas party at which most staff considered their attendance to be mandatory. The party went off without a hitch. After the party ended, however, the MD along with several staff and their partners went to a hotel where there was more drinking. Mr Bellman, a sales manager for Northampton, got into a discussion with the MD about one of the MD’s hiring decisions. Under the influence of alcohol and feeling his authority had been challenged, the MD hit Mr Bellman, fracturing his skull and causing a brain injury.
Was Northampton liable to Mr Bellman for the injury caused to him by its MD? The court considered whether the gathering at the hotel was an extension of the employees’ workplace or wholly unrelated. In this particular case, the employer was held not to be liable for its MD’s actions because leaving the party (which was most certainly an extension of the workplace) and moving to a hotel was a spur of the moment decision as was the decision to go on and drink more. It was seen as an entirely voluntary and personal decision following the end of a work-related event.
Although in this case the employer escaped liability, it is still a cautionary tale. Care should be taken at “work-related” events to ensure employees’ safety and avoid employers’ liability. There are also reputational issues to consider: no one wants to read a drunken tweet badmouthing the employer, colleagues or clients.
Employers should by all means encourage staff to attend marketing events but care should be taken to ensure appropriate processes are in place so that those employees stay out of trouble enabling employers to get on with their business.