While the office party ought to be an opportunity for a relaxed get together of staff, the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd shows the risk of costly consequences when matters get out of hand writes Debra Spedding, litigation solicitor with Everett Tomlin Lloyd & Pratt

In this case, considered in the High Court this year, the employer held a Christmas party. After the party the company agreed to pay for some employees to go in taxis to their hotel and it was expected that some of the drinks would be on the company’s bill. Regrettably two employees became involved in a fight which had terrible consequences as one of the employees suffered severe injuries.

The injured party decided to litigate against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the acts of the other employee who had caused the injury as they argued the party was a work event.

The High Court considered the issue. During its deliberations it confirmed that if the incident itself had taken place during the official Christmas party then it was possible that the employer could be liable for the actions of the employee.

On the facts of this particular case, the court held that as the fight itself was during a later private party, the employer was not responsible. Given that there is strict liability where an employer is shown to be vicariously liable the case highlights the importance of ensuring that office social events do not get out of hand.

Most employers will have codes of conduct and some choose to remind staff prior to office events of that while they should have an enjoyable time that there are standards of behaviour expected of them and consequences if they fall short of them.

While this is an extreme example there are other pitfalls to be avoided with office parties.

Invitations should be made to all to avoid staff feeling they have been treated less favourably than others. However, where the party takes place out of office hours or where it is associated with a religious festival attendance should not be mandatory .

Choice of venue and entertainment is important as employers need to make sure that the venue is accessible by all and that the entertainment provided is unlikely to offend. It may have seemed a good idea to book Bernard Manning at the time, but in a notable case the court held against an employer in an employment tribunal case where a waitress complained about the offensive nature of his jokes.

While everybody should be able to have a good time employers should consider gentle reminders prior to the office party about acceptable behaviour and should have policies in place to deal with any issues.