Employer liable for employee’s injuries caused by Christmas Party assault
The Court of Appeal has held that a company was vicariously liable for an assault carried out by the managing director on another employee, leaving that employee seriously injured. Francesca Wild, Senior Associate in our Employment team explores a recent case in the below article.
In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited  the Court of Appeal held that there was sufficient connection between a managing director’s job and his drunken assault on an employee to render the company vicariously liable for his actions.
An employer is usually held vicariously liable for the torts of an employee committed “in the course of employment”. The test is whether the torts were “so closely connected with [the] employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable”
In this case the Court of Appeal considered whether the High Court was right to dismiss a claim that a company was liable for one employee’s violent attack on another following a Christmas party.
Mr Major was the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd (the company). In 2010 he recruited the Claimant, Mr Bellman, a childhood friend, as a sales manager.
Following the 2011 Christmas party half of the guests, including Mr Major and Mr Bellman, went on for “impromptu drinks” at a hotel. The company paid for taxis to the hotel.
Discussions turned to work matters and a controversial issue arose. Mr Major lost his temper and began lecturing those present. When Mr Bellman challenged Mr Major (in a non-aggressive manner) Mr Major swore at Mr Bellman and then punched him. He went on to punch Mr Bellman a second time and Mr Bellman suffered a fractured skull. Medical reports subsequently confirmed severe brain damage and it is unlikely Mr Bellman will work again.
In 2016 the High Court ruled the recruitment business was not liable for Mr Major’s actions.
At that time, the judge found that the after party at the hotel bar “was, or without doubt became, an entirely independent, voluntary and discrete early-hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the defendant’s business”.
Mr Bellman appealed and the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s decision. The judges unanimously agreed that the company was liable for the actions taken by Mr Major during the after party.
One of the judges said that Mr Major “chose to wear his metaphorical managing director’s hat…to deliver a lecture to his subordinates” and was “exercising the very wide remit” the company gave him “despite the time and place”.
With Christmas party season upon us it is important to keep in mind that vicarious liability can apply even in circumstances that would not necessarily appear to be “company events” at first glance. If the nature of the employee’s job was engaged during any incident this can point towards a connection with the employee’s employment and increase the likelihood of an employer being vicariously liable.
Top tips to encourage appropriate behaviour (and assist in your defence in case of claims):
- Review your appropriate policies and take advise as necessary, to ensure they are ‘ fit for purpose’ in the party season e.g. your equal opportunities, bullying and harassment and disciplinary policies.
- Decide whether it is necessary (without appearing too Scrooge-like) to remind staff about expected standards of behaviour. Consider whether offering a free bar is sensible or will encourage staff to over indulge!
- Ask a senior member of staff to remain sober and keep an eye out for any inappropriate behaviour and take action if necessary.