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Alcohol at Workplace Festivities – The Law is Not a Party Pooper!

Workplace social events are a time-honoured means of rewarding staff and boosting morale, but the presence of alcohol means that they are not without risk. The High Court’s ruling in the case of a woman who was seriously injured on the dancefloor showed, however, that the law is not a party pooper.

The case concerned a Christmas gathering held at a university research institute and organised by a medical charity. One of those present was a visiting scientist, who had been drinking alcohol and was in high spirits. He lost his footing whilst attempting to lift the woman up on the dancefloor without her consent.

She fell to the floor, suffering a serious back injury, and took legal action against the charity, claiming up to £300,000 in compensation. In dismissing her claim, however, a judge ruled that the charity had not been negligent and was not in any event responsible for the behaviour of the scientist, who was not its employee and whose inebriated actions were far removed from his work at the institute.

In dismissing the woman’s appeal against that decision, the Court found some merit in the charity’s plea that a ruling in her favour, whilst not meaning that Christmas is cancelled, would act as a disincentive to workplace parties and would be viewed by the man on the Clapham omnibus as an example of health and safety gone mad.

The charity had carried out a risk assessment before the event and did not dispute that it owed the woman a duty of care. However, the scientist had previously picked up three other women, without incident or complaint, and no one present at the event had considered his behaviour so extreme as to merit intervention.

The Court noted that it did not require a risk assessment to establish the well-known disinhibiting effects of alcohol. Arguments that organisers of workplace parties should, amongst other things, provide specially trained staff and require guests to sign written guarantees of good behaviour defied common sense. The Court could also find no fault in the judge’s decision that the charity did not bear vicarious liability for the scientist’s behaviour.