An employer can be vicariously liable for the wrongful conduct of an employee during the course of their employment provided there is sufficient connection between that conduct and the employee’s position. The Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited illustrates that the courts will view this connection broadly, particularly in assault cases. The Court ruled that an employer was vicariously liable for an assault by its managing director on another employee at an unscheduled drinking session after a Christmas party.
The managing director of Northampton Recruitment Limited, Mr Major, was in overall charge of all aspects of operations and was described as the ‘directing mind and will’ of the company. Mr Bellman was employed as sales manager. After the company’s Christmas party, there was an impromptu drinking session at a hotel where some of the staff were staying. By 2am only Mr Major, four other employees and their partners remained, and the conversation turned to work. Mr Major lost his temper when questioned about the appointment of a new employee and began to lecture the remaining employees on how he owned the company, paid their wages, and would do what he wanted to do. He was challenged in a non-aggressive manner by Mr Bellman. Mr Major then lost control and punched Mr Bellman twice, causing such significant brain damage that Mr Bellman is unlikely to work again.
The High Court held that the company was not vicariously liable for this assault. Since the drinks at the hotel were separate from the Christmas party and at a separate location, the assault had arisen in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session. As managing director, Mr Major had a very wide remit, but this did not mean that he was on duty just because he was in the company of other employees, regardless of the circumstances. The High Court concluded that there was therefore insufficient connection between his position and the assault on Mr Bellman.
Overturning this decision, the Court of Appeal emphasised that the question of whether conduct occurred in the course of employment must be considered by looking at the field of activities assigned to the employee in the broadest sense. Clearly, the nature of Mr Major’s role and his authority were very wide. The Court of Appeal agreed that the unscheduled drinking session was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party. However, the drinks occurred after an event paid for and orchestrated by Mr Major, who had been fulfilling his managerial duties for a large part of the evening. The participants in the drinking session had attended the Christmas party in their roles as staff members, and Mr Major had chosen to wear his ‘metaphorical managing director’s hat’ when he lectured his subordinates about his rights and powers. It followed that the assault on Mr Bellman arose out of a misuse of Mr Major’s position as managing director. The Court of Appeal concluded that there was therefore sufficient connection between his job and the assault to render the company vicariously liable for his actions.
This case illustrates that the courts will interpret an employee’s role and activities broadly, particularly where an assault is involved, and will also take into account the context, time and place of the wrongful conduct. However, the Court of Appeal stressed that the facts of this case were unusual and that liability will not arise just because there is an argument about work matters between colleagues which leads to an assault, even where one colleague is more senior. Liability arose in this case because of Mr Major’s seniority, his extremely wide remit, and the fact that he was exerting his authority during the discussion about work by trying to quell dissent.