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Can I make a claim against my employer if I am injured at the Christmas party?

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The unintended aftermath of the office Christmas party

It’s nearly December. Yes, most Brits can’t believe that fact but it’s true. Many a tree and decoration have likely already made it into the living room and shops by the time I write this. 

Anyway, enough about trees and decorations. Let’s talk about parties. Yes, parties. That common feature of the festive season most companies throw for their employees – the annual Christmas party. 

These would largely take place in your office or workplace during the 80s and 90s but, in modern times, celebrations usually take place in restaurants or other such venues.

When the food and alcohol is flowing freely, there is a high chance that things won’t always go to plan and someone sometimes gets hurt. 

But does the fact that the party is outside of the workplace mean you can’t claim against your employer? It all depends on the accident circumstances and whether a breach of the duty of care between employer and employee has happened. 

In Bellman –v- Northampton Recruitment Ltd, a particularly interesting case where the managing director and owner of a company decided to continue drinking with staff in a nearby hotel after the party. Taxi fees and most of the drinks were paid for by the managing director.  Later, in the early hours of the morning, an argument broke out between an employee and the managing director. 

Bizarrely, the managing director decided to punch his employee in the face causing the employee to fall to the floor unconscious and he struck his head on the pavement. Sadly, the employee suffered brain injuries with a serious long term cognitive dysfunction.

The judge, deciding on the matter, had this to say:

"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.

Given the time and place, when the conversation was, as it was for a significant time, on social or sporting topics, no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of those employees of the defendant present.

That it then veered into a discussion about work cannot provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company that employed them.

It was, or without any doubt became, an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the defendant's business. To use a hackneyed expression akin to "a frolic" of their own."

Of course, as you might expect, the decision was appealed and all three appeal judges disagreed with the original judge.

The Appeal Court decided that when the managing director spoke with his staff about work related queries at the after party, he was wearing his “metaphorical managing director’s hat”. Given that the managing director was its most senior employee, he had full control over how he conducted himself and when speaking to his staff about work related queries, he was establishing his authority in that role. In this regard, the company was found liable.

In another case, Shelbourne –v- Cancer Research UK, a visiting scientist had attended the Christmas party and picked up an employee of Cancer Research and dropped her, causing the employee a severe back injury. That employee then took legal action against the charity.

The court found that Cancer Research UK had not breached its duty of care. The court considered the previous five Christmas parties which all had been incident free. The court also found that, in terms of any vicarious liability, that the scientist’s actions at the party were not sufficient connected to the functions he carried out for the employer, namely research, and that it would not have been fair or just to hold the employer to blame.

I saw that the National Accident Helpline carried a study out in 2015 regards to accidents that happened at Christmas parties and it makes for some interesting reading.

Some of the most common accidents include:

  • Spilling a drink on someone else, with a staggering 3.7 million affected in some way by this.
  • Falling over. Over 3.6 million people have suffered injuries, some serious, from falling at a Christmas party – perhaps the most common type of injury suffered at a Christmas party.
  • Lighter burns. Yes, you read that right.  Lighter burns. 1.5 million people have hurt themselves on lighters or other people’s lighters at parties.

I was interested to read that other accidents included ankle and wrist injuries, as well as instances of food poisoning.

So, here’s a handy checklist for employers and employees, before and after such incidents.

Tips for employers

  • Remind your employees of your expectations and be clear on what will be considered inappropriate behaviour at the party
  • Perhaps control the amount of free alcohol and maybe use a voucher system that limits how much alcohol each employee can consume
  • Make sure non-alcoholic drinks and food are provided
  • Avoid discussions with employees about career or pay topics
  • Consider ensuring a member of management or more senior employee with first aid training is available to deal with any emergencies or incidents that arise
  • Should an incident occur, that employee can then deal with any injured party, taking photographs, notes of the injury as well as providing first aid and/or calling for emergency medical services should the need arise

Tips for employees

  • Probably the most important, do not forget you are effectively still ‘at work’, and conduct yourself accordingly
  • Try to avoid drinking too much so that you don’t know what you are doing
  • Avoid discussing any career or pay topics with your manager
  • Report any tripping hazards should these be found pre-issue
  • If you have an accident, report this to your designated first aid or senior member of staff
  • Take photographs of any injuries

And above all, don’t forget to have fun.