In Bellman -v- Northampton Recruitment Limited the High Court ruled that an employer was not vicariously liable for an assault by one of its directors after a Christmas party.

Mr Major was the managing director and a shareholder of Northampton Recruitment Limited (the company). He had H Hattended the company’s Christmas party along with the claimant, Mr Bellman. After the formal party had finished, a number of the guests (including Mr Major and Mr Bellman) continued onto a hotel where some of the guests were staying and continued drinking.

Whilst the remaining staff continued to drink, an argument arose between Mr Bellman and Mr Major (about an employment related matter). Consequently, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman causing him to fall over and hit his head on the hotel’s marble floor. Mr Bellman suffered brain damage and brought a claim in the High Court seeking damages from the company on the basis that they were liable for the actions of Mr Major.

Decision

As a general rule, employers are vicariously liable for acts committed by their employees where the wrongdoing takes place in the scope of their employment. An extreme example of this liability was recently considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Mohamud -v- WM Morrisons Supermarkets plc. In that case Morrisons was found to be vicariously liable for an attack carried out by Mr Mohamud on a customer at one of its stores. The fact that Morrisons had clearly not condoned or instructed Mr Mohamud to behave in this way did not prevent them being liable for his actions.

Despite the Supreme Court’s findings in the Mohamud case, the High Court rejected Mr Bellman’s claim on the basis that the assault was committed after a work social event and not during, it even though the fact the Company had paid for taxis to the hotel and had continued to pay for drinks.

In making its decision the High Court concluded that the drinking in the hotel was not simply an extension of the company’s Christmas party and that Mr Major could not be held to be deemed to be indefinitely upon duty. The fact that the two men had argued about an employment related matter did not automatically mean that a purely social drinking event became a work event. Consequently, the company was not liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries.

This case serves to highlight the difficulties that can arise from employment related social events. Notwithstanding the outcome of this case, this decision demonstrates the difficult position employers face when matters get out of control in the workplace or at work events. Had this argument occurred earlier at the main Christmas event, it is most likely that the outcome of this case would have been very different.