when some unimaginative employment lawyers lacking in festive spirit start to send out the annual newsletter reminding employers about the perils of holding office Christmas parties.

As an employment lawyer however you never cease to be amazed at the lack of judgment exercised by some employees at their office Christmas party. Over the years I have had to deal with the member of staff who with great confidence (presumably after several pints) invited his Finance Director to step outside, only to find out that said FD was a black belt in martial arts. I have also lost count of the number of clients who have phoned me the day after wanting to discuss the actions of employees who have caused offence to colleagues or who have overstepped the line in some way having had too much to drink.

This year Christmas has arrived early for employment lawyers courtesy of the impeccable timing of the High Court's recent judgment in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, which just so happens to be during peak office party season.

The case centres around the liability of an employer for the actions of one of its directors who assaulted a member of staff causing him to sustain brain damage. The assault actually occurred after the official Christmas party had ended when a few staff had retired for an "impromptu drink" at a separate venue to the party itself.

Mr Bellman was employed by NR Limited having been recruited by its Managing Director who had been his friend for over four decades since childhood. The party took place at a golf club and was attended by staff and their partners. Half of the party (about 12) took taxis paid for by NR Limited to a nearby hotel at the end of the night. Those present continued to drink with the expectation that some of the drinks would be paid for by NR Limited through its MD.

There was a disagreement between MD and some employees resulting in Mr Bellman intervening in a non-aggressive manner. Unfortunately however this resulted in Mr Bellman being punched twice by the MD. He was knocked unconscious and suffered brain damage as a result. Mr Bellman pursued a claim for damages against his employer arguing that it was vicariously liable for the actions of its MD.

The court recognised that the case raised the common issue of where to draw the line between the office party ending and the (non-work related) social gathering starting. 

The disagreement had arisen over a work related discussion but the court felt it was unreasonable to say that the mere fact of a discussion about work was enough for liability to arise. It also drew a line between the "official" party at the golf club ending and the impromptu drinks at the hotel. The court concluded that one was not a seamless extension of the other. 

The court also noted that it hadn't been the employment relationship which was responsible for putting Mr Bellman at risk of injury. It made the point that Christmas parties typically involve the consumption of alcohol which can take place without risk of incident. In this case those present at the golf club had engaged in a heavy drinking session which had taken place of their own free will and irrespective of whether NR Limited had paid for some or most of the bill, it didn't result in the subsequent assault of Mr Bellman being in the course of his employment.

Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their staff which take place in the course of their employment. The distinction between what is in the course of employment and what isn't will not always be clear and is a common theme when deciding whether an employer can take disciplinary action against employees following the office party. This particular case favours the employer helping to draw a clear distinction between the "official" party and the common "post party" celebrations which are organised by employees of their own volition.