The High Court ruled on December 1, 2016 that Northampton Recruitment Limited was not liable when a manager punched an employee twice in the head after a Christmas party. While the Company was not held liable, the case is a cautionary tale for companies during the holiday season.

Clive Bellman, an employee of Northampton Recruitment Limited, attended his company’s Christmas party at a golf club. As noted by the judge, “[n]ot surprisingly alcohol was consumed by many attending.”  After the party, Bellman returned to a nearby hotel in a cab paid for by the company.  After arriving at the hotel by 1:00 a.m., Bellman and a number of other employees continued drinking and discussing a number of topics with the director of the company, John Major. Major and Bellman had been friends for over 40 years, and Bellman had been recruited for the company by Major. After continuing to discuss random topics, at about 2:45 a.m. the group started to discuss company business, including deriding Major for a recent appointment. The argument continued, until Major punched Bellman. Bellman was knocked to the ground and was bleeding from his left eye. After Bellman got up, holding his hands up “in a gesture of surrender,” Major rushed at Bellman again and punched him, slamming his head into the ground.

Even with these facts, the court held that the Company was not liable for this attack. Although Major and Bellman were discussing work related topics and the assault occurred after a company party, the court found it important that the later conversation was clearly distinct from the earlier party.  The court held that, “Standing back and considering matters broadly, what was taking place at 3.00 a.m. at the hotel was a drunken discussion that rose after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended.”  The fact that the conversation “veered into a discussion about work” did not provide a “sufficient connection” to the company.  In the end, the court held that Bellman and Major were on “a frolic of their own.”

The fact that the conversation was hours after the company party and was the “personal choice” of all involved insulated the company from liability in this case. Nonetheless, employers and managers should look at this recent case as a cautionary tale. Holiday parties, because of the combination of employees interacting with supervisors and potentially free-flowing alcohol, create a perfect cocktail for potential liability for employers. Had this fight taken place during the party, the company would have been liable in this case. Employers should be aware of these risks while also thanking employees for their hard work this past year and providing them with a joyful holiday environment.