The Court of Appeal has considered whether an employer is vicariously liable for an injury sustained at an unofficial gathering following on from the company’s Christmas party.
Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWCA Civ 2214
The case concerned an employee who was violently assaulted by the company’s managing director at an impromptu drinking session following the company’s Christmas party. The High Court originally rejected the employee’s claim for damages for the personal injury he had sustained, on the basis that the managing director was not ‘on duty’ at the time the assault occurred. The judge was satisfied that the incident had not occurred ‘in the course of employment’, meaning that the company was not liable for the managing director’s actions. The employee appealed to the Court of Appeal.
Court of Appeal decision
The employee’s appeal has been upheld, with the Court of Appeal finding the company vicariously liable for the managing director’s actions. The managing director was the ‘directing mind and will’ of a relatively small company and would have seen the maintenance of his managerial authority as a central part of his role. In the context of the post-party drinking session, at which the conversation had turned to working matters, the managing director had purported to exert his managerial authority over the staff who were present. Just because the drinking session was voluntary and unscheduled, it did not follow that the managing director was not acting in that capacity. He was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to assert his authority over the staff who were present, and to reassert that authority when he thought it necessary. This meant that there was a sufficient connection between the managing director’s duties and the assault to render the company vicariously liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries.
HR professionals will already be well aware of the risks associated with unruly behaviour taking place at work Christmas parties and other social events. This case serves to provide a warning that courts will adopt a wide interpretation of what amounts to ‘in the course of employment’ for the purposes of establishing vicarious liability, even beyond an official work event. However, the judgment also makes it clear that the facts of this case are unusual and that this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely in practice. An argument about work matters among colleagues outside of a work event, which leads to an assault, will not generally result in vicariously liability. The distinctive feature in this case was the express assertion of authority by the company’s most senior figure.