A recent decision in Ontario highlights the potential of liability on the part of employers for things that happen at staff parties that are sanctioned by the employer, including sexual assault. The potential for problems when you mix management, staff and a few drinks is huge. The Ontario decision involved a case where a manager had sexual intercourse with a young employee without her consent following attendance at a staff party. The employee sued the employer, alleging that they were vicariously liable. The court found the employer liable. The reasoning behind the court’s decision included most significantly the following:
- The employer increased the risk of sexual assault when it made a decision to host a staff party at a location that was virtually impossible to supervise;
- The company permitted alcohol to be consumed during the party;
- There was a power imbalance between the individuals that attended the staff party given that both management and staff were in attendance.
For these reasons the court found that it was reasonably foreseeable that a sexual assault could occur.
The lessons to the employer are many and include the need to carefully consider the nature of activities that they are sponsoring as an employer and the need to ensure that regardless of whether the activity is during work hours or at the work location they are under an obligation to ensure that their employees remain safe.