A recent case where an employee’s workers’ compensation claim was upheld for an injury sustained during a work Christmas party serves as a timely reminder for employers to consider and address risks that may arise at work-related functions during the upcoming festive season.
In the recent case of Return to Work Corporation of South Australia v Valentine and Karrara Hair and Beauty Centre  SAET 134, an appeals bench of the South Australian Employment Tribunal upheld that the injuries sustained by an employee during a work Christmas party constituted a “work injury” for the purposes of the Return to Work Act 2014 (SA) (RTW Act). The employee attended a Christmas party arranged and paid for by the employer, which involved weekend overnight accommodation, unlimited alcohol, lunch, dinner, a spa bath and a male stripper. The employee sustained hip and leg injuries after stepping out of the spa bath and slipping on wet tiles whilst intoxicated.
At first instance, the trial judge found that the injury sustained by the employee arose from the employee’s employment and was a significant contributing cause of the injury, giving rise to the employee’s entitlement to compensation under the RTW Act.
On appeal, Return to Work SA argued that the Christmas party constituted a “social activity” excluded from the RTW Act, and relied on section 7(7) of the RTW Act which states that “An injury does not arise from employment if it arises out of or in the course of the worker's involvement in a social or sporting activity, except where the activity forms part of the worker's employment or is undertaken at the direction or request of the employer”.
In upholding the trial judge’s decision, the Tribunal agreed with the findings that although the activities were social, the activities, including the use of the spa bath, were “undertaken at the direction or request of the employer”. The Tribunal also held that the employee “did not engage in a frolic of her own outside the social activity” and that objectively, the employee “was injured from her involvement in the social activity that she was requested by [the employer] to undertake”.
This case serves a timely reminder of employers’ obligations as to the safety of their workers during work-related social functions such as work Christmas parties. Employers must also consider their duties and obligations under the applicable work, health and safety legislation.
Practical Tips for Employers and Businesses
Ensure that work-related functions and activities are safe and appropriate;
Ensure that workplace policies set out the minimum standards of behaviour expected from workers during work-related functions, including in respect of work health and safety, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, use of alcohol and drugs and the use of social media. Staff training should be conducted in respect of such policies and minimum behaviour standards;
Functions should have a clear start and finish time;
Monitor employee behaviour during work-related social events;
Ensure employees have safe transport arrangements and means to get to the function as well as safely home following the function;
Ensure inappropriate behaviour during functions are managed appropriately and reported to management, including appropriately and promptly dealing with complaints or behaviour.