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Case update (3): Employer’s liability – when the (Christmas) party’s over

Summary:  Was employer vicariously liable for its managing director’s assault on an employee when drinking in a hotel bar after the company’s Christmas party?

Yes, says the Court of Appeal in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, available here.

Facts:  Mr Major was the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the employer. A Christmas party was organised in 2011. Following the party, some of the guests, including Mr Major and the employee, Mr Bellman, went on to a hotel where some guests were staying. The topic of discussion eventually turned to work matters. It was during this discussion that Mr Major lost his temper and began to assert his authority. He was challenged by Mr Bellman and as a consequence Mr Major punched him twice, fracturing his skull and rendering him unconscious. It is unlikely that Mr Bellman will work again because of the injuries sustained.

Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages against the employer, on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct.

The High Court held that the employer was not vicariously liable for the assault on Mr Bellman. It held that the drinks were separate from the Christmas party itself and at a separate location. The court concluded the incident had arisen in the context of ‘entirely voluntary and personal choices‘ by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session. There was, therefore, insufficient connection between Mr Major’s role as Managing Director and the assault.

Mr Bellman appealed.

The Court of Appeal held that the unscheduled drinking session was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party, but it had to be seen against the background of the evening’s events. It was not just an impromptu drinks party between work colleagues which might happen on any night after work. This happened on the same evening as the work event and paid for by the company. The Court of Appeal held that the attack arose because of the Managing Director’s seniority at the employer, and the fact that he had asserted his authority.

The Court of Appeal held that there was sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job and the assault for his actions to be considered ‘in the course of employment‘ to mean that the employer was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.

However, the Court of Appeal emphasised that the facts of this case were unusual and that liability will not arise just because an argument between colleagues about work related matters leads to an assault, even where one person is considerably more senior than the others.

Implications: Even though highly fact specific, and as the Court of Appeal said ‘this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely‘, this case is a timely reminder of the perils of alcohol-fuelled work-parties. Indeed, even setting aside the legal issues of vicarious liability, any inappropriate behaviour at a work-related event is likely to have negative repercussions and contaminate the workplace. As such this case does highlight why employers should take steps to manage workplace events carefully and have a read of our above Christmas special ‘HAVE A HAPPY WORKPLACE CHRISTMAS (BUT DON’T GET TOO MERRY..!)’.

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