The Court of Appeal has allowed the Claimant’s appeal in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, finding that the employer was vicariously liable for its Managing Director’s assault of another employee at a post-Christmas party drinks event.
The principle of vicarious liability refers to circumstances where a party is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. In a workplace context, an employer is vicariously liable at common law where the wrongdoer is an employee, or in a relationship with the employer akin to employment, and there is a sufficient connection between the wrongful act and the position in which the wrongdoer is employed.
The Claimant was a Sales Manager at Northampton Recruitment Limited (NR), a national HGV drivers’ agency. The “directing mind” of NR was its Managing Director, Mr John Major, who was authorised to act on behalf of NR with a wide remit. On 16 December 2011, NR held a Christmas party for all members of staff and their partners. Both the Claimant and Mr Major were present at the party, with Mr Major overseeing its smooth running. Following the close of the party, a number of attendees moved to a nearby hotel bar for an impromptu drinks party. During the drinking session, in the early hours, an argument arose between a number of parties over the employment terms of a new employee. The Claimant challenged Mr Major's decision and this resulted in Mr Major punching the Claimant twice. As a result, the Claimant sustained severe brain damage.
High Court decision
The High Court found that the central question in this case was: is there sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job and the wrongful act? Although the Court recognised the wide-ranging duties of Mr Major’s role, it ultimately concluded that NR was not vicariously liable for his actions. It considered the assault happened during: “…a drunk discussion that [a]rose after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended”. Hence, they considered it was separate to the official NR Christmas party.
Court of Appeal decision
The Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the Claimant's appeal. It concluded that there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major's field of activities and the assault in question.
In reaching this judgement, the Court drew on the decision in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc. In that case the Supreme Court found sufficient connection between an assault of a customer by a petrol station employee. The assault took place on the forecourt of the petrol station and the employee's duties were to serve customers and ensure that petrol pumps and kiosk were in good running order.
In Bellman the Court recognised that the official NR Christmas party and subsequent unscheduled drinking session were not a single event. However, it went on to state that: "…despite the time and place at which the assault occurred, Mr Major’s position of seniority persisted and was a significant factor. 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 re-assert that authority when he thought it necessary.”
Furthermore, the Court took account of the fact that immediately before being challenged by the Claimant and assaulting him, Mr Major: "…chose to wear his metaphorical managing director's hat and to deliver a lecture to his subordinates". Given these unusual circumstances, it was, therefore, just to impose liability on the employer.
Although turning on its unusual facts, this decision reminds us that employers may be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. This is regardless of how remote the wrongful conduct may initially appear from the course of the employee's employment, and is particularly relevant in the context of conduct by senior employees or managers, with wide remit and general authority. Employers should seek to counter this risk by having appropriate policies and training in place which educate employees on appropriate standards of behaviour, including outside the workplace.