Many will recall the vicarious liability case heard earlier in 2016, involving a petrol station attendant (Mohamud v. WM Morrison Supermarkets plc. [2016] UKSC 11) where it was found on appeal that there was a sufficiently close connection between a vicious assault and the employee's job of attending to customers.

In the recent case of Bellman v. Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104 (QB), the High Court has found that a company was not vicariously liable for an assault by its Managing Director on his sales manager (who was also a childhood friend) when drinking together immediately after the company's Christmas party.

When determining vicarious liability, the Court considers whether the torts committed by an employee were "so closely connected with employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable". In this case, 24 guests (employees and their partners) attended a Christmas party at a golf club. After that, about half of the guests attended "impromptu" after-party drinks at a hotel where some employees were staying. During a contentious discussion about work-related matters, the Managing Director punched the sales director twice. The extent of the injuries suffered by the sales manager mean that he may never work again.

Significantly in the Bellman claim, the Court found it relevant that the drinks were not planned but, as the company was paying for taxis home, it instead paid for the taxis to the hotel where the after-party drinks were held. It was understood that the company would pay for at least some drinks. The Court focused on the roles and responsibilities entrusted to the Managing Director, including that, as "controlling mind" of a small company, he was authorised to act on the company's behalf with a wide remit and that things were done "his way". However, the Court did not feel that the wide range of his duties he held meant that he was automatically "on duty" (or for that matter "off duty") at any one time. All the circumstances needed to be considered to determine this.

When considering if there was a sufficiently close connection between the position in which the Managing Director was employed and the wrongful conduct, such that the company should be liable, it decided:

  • there was a clear separation between the Christmas party and the "impromptu" drinks, which were not a seamless extension of the party; and
  • the fact that the dispute concerned a work-related matter was only relevant to a limited degree.

In the absence of any incident or confrontation at the Christmas party, the Court was not minded to place material emphasis on the provision of alcohol by the company, which it felt but for the decisions of those who chose to participate could have been enjoyed in moderation. There were insufficient grounds to conclude that acts were so closely connected with employment that it would be fair and just to hold the respondent company liable.

The decision may yet be appealed, particularly given the significance of the level of potential loss. In any event, employers should exercise caution in assuming that this broader application of the close connection test means that they will not be liable for any incidents which occur after the official end of a Christmas party.