Not the Usual Piece on Office Parties

06 Dec 2016

I’m bored with the usual seasonal warnings about behaviour at works Christmas parties so here’s pause for thought from a judgement of the High Court last Thursday.

John Major (no, not that one) is Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Clive Bellman was one of his employees. They both attended the company’s Christmas Party at Collingtree Golf Club but Clive wasn’t really in a party mood; he was annoyed at an appointment made by John about a month earlier.  Nevertheless the party itself seems to have been uneventful being described by the Judge as “…an ordinary or usual work Christmas party of the type no doubt dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others.”

At about 12:30 – 1:00am a group of guests adjourned (by taxi) to the lobby of the nearby Hilton Hotel where many of them were staying, and the drink kept coming. The Judge noted the remarkable capacity of one chap who’d had a beer before the party, a significant quantity of beer during the party then 4 or 5 pints of Boddingtons and 2 Jack Daniels back at the hotel. At about 2:45am a group including John and Clive went outside and their conversation turned to business. John became annoyed when Clive mentioned the recent appointment and he stormed off. He summoned the remaining staff and lectured them on how he owned the company and he’d do what he wanted – the Judge observed “It appears that the now probably significantly inebriated Mr Major was in the process of losing his temper.”  Indeed M’lud.

Perhaps a little rashly, Clive challenged John again. John swore at Clive and punched him in the face. Clive fell to the floor then picked himself up and, bleeding from his left eye area, pleaded “John, what are you doing? Don’t do this.” This pushed John over the edge. He broke free from the 2 men trying to restrain him, and hit Clive again. Clive was knocked out, fell straight back, hit his head on the floor and started bleeding from his ears. His skull was fractured. For my medical readers he also sustained extradural bleeding, left frontal lobe contusion with residual subdural and subarachnoid haemorrhage and fractures to the right temporal bone and the left orbital floor. He’s left with significant brain damage.

Clive sued the company relying on the familiar principle that he was attending a works event so the company must be vicariously liable. This is well established law but here’s the twist; the judge drew a distinction between the organised social event at the golf club and the impromptu drinking session back at the hotel. He ruled the latter was a spontaneous post-event gathering which couldn’t be regarded as a seamless extension of the works party. Furthermore, while the assault may have been prompted by a work related issue the chain of causation was broken by the time gap and the intervening social conversation. A conversation between colleagues about work with the company paying some of their bar bill  was not enough. Fixing the company with liability would leave it with such wide responsibilities as to be almost uninsurable. Additionally, on the facts, those who joined in the early morning drinking session did so entirely voluntarily and the risk of an alcohol fuelled altercation in these circumstances would not make the company vicariously liable for John’s behaviour.

The Crown Prosecution Service acknowledge it was a mistake to abandon John’s prosecution.