Are you worried about how to act at your looming office Christmas party? Do you relax and enjoy the free bar or act professionally, as though you’re at a business meeting? Well Bellman (B) V Northampton Recruitment (NR) may have some answers for you.

In 2011 NR threw their annual office party which was attended by 23 members of staff. At the end of the evening, some decided to continue the party at a local hotel. Among these members of staff were B and the Managing Director of NR. The drinking continued, and light-hearted conversation soon turned to heated work discussions which led to the Managing Director hosting a lecture to those employees who had attended the afterparty. Tensions continued to rise between the Managing Director and B, culminating in the Managing Director assaulting B and causing brain damage.

B sued the Company on the basis that NR was indirectly responsible for the Managing Director’s actions under the rules of vicarious liability. The court disagreed, stating that this was an ‘after-work’ event and the Managing Director cannot always be expected to be ‘on duty’. The Court ruled that, as this was a non-work-related event, the fact a work-related discussion was the cause of the assault was irrelevant as the event could have taken place anywhere.

The judge stated that if a company was responsible for conversations between employees then liability would become so vast as to become  ‘potentially uninsurable’.

However, the case was then taken to the Court of Appeal and this decision was overturned. The Court of Appeal found that there was a sufficient connection between the  Managing Director’s wrongful conduct and his role in the Company to render the Company vicariously liable. The assault took place during an impromptu lecture given by the Managing Director, the most senior employee, at NR. Couple this with the fact that it was not strictly speaking a social event, but a follow on from an organised work event funded by the Company was sufficient to make the Company vicariously liable for the assault.