Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104 (QB) (01 December 2016)

The High Court has ruled that a company was not vicariously liable for the assault on a manager, by a director, after the Christmas party.

Following the company Christmas party half of the guests went on to a hotel and continued drinking. A heated discussion ensued resulting in one of the directors punching the manager twice and knocking him out. He sustained brain damage and brought a claim for damages against the company on the basis that they were vicariously liable for the acts of their employees.

The High Court rejected the claim. Even though the company had paid for the taxis to the hotel, had paid for some of the additional drinks and the discussion had been about work, the Court held that the assault was committed after, not during, a work social event. The Court concluded that the after party had become an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the company Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant’s business. If the assault had happened earlier on in the evening, the Judge said that the company could have been liable.

The decision is a surprising one but serves as a timely reminder of the risks to an employer where employees behave inappropriately at work events. It may also provide some relief to employers during Christmas party season by apparently raising the bar (no pun intended) for when a social function will be viewed as employer "sponsored".