With the onset of the Christmas party season, this case is a timely reminder of whether an employer is liable for an employee’s conduct at a social event. The case is Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.
Facts of the case
Mr Major was the managing director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd (NRL). A Christmas party was organised in 2011. Following the party, some of the guests, including Mr Major and the claimant, 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 NRL on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct.
High Court judgment
The High Court held that NRL 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.
Court of Appeal
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 in NRL 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 render NRL to be vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.
In light of the Court of Appeal’s decision, employers may reconsider holding social events. It is important to bear in mind that this case was based on unusual facts. The Judge’s comments might give some comfort to employers:
‘This case arose because of the way in which Mr Major chose to exert his authority, indeed his dominance as the only real decision maker, in the company. Hence there is liability. I do emphasise that this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely. Liability will not arise merely because there is an argument about work matters between colleagues, which leads to an assault, even when one colleague is markedly more senior than another. This case is emphatically not authority for the proposition that employers became insurers for violent or other tortious acts by their employees.’