Employer was vicariously liable for post-Christmas party assault


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The court of appeal has held that an employer was vicariously liable for an assault following a Christmas party in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Employers can be vicariously liable for their employees' behaviour during the course of employment, and this will extend to situations which are effectively extensions of the workplace (for instance, work-related social events). It seems that, following the decision in Bellman, an employer may potentially be liable for incidents which occur after the official work social event finishes too.

In Bellman, following a company Christmas party at a golf club, half of the guests moved on to a hotel and carried on drinking (it was not a pre-planned extension of the Christmas party). The majority, but not all, of the guests were staying at the hotel and the majority of the drinks were paid for by Northampton Recruitment Ltd. As time went on there was a heated exchange about a work matter, and the managing director of the company lost his temper and began to tell the employees present that he was in charge and made all the decisions. On being challenged by Mr Bellman, one of the company's employees, in a non-aggressive manner, he responded with his fists and punched him twice. The second punch knocked Mr Bellman out and he sustained some brain damage.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the High Court's initial finding that a line could be drawn between the Christmas party at the golf club and the "impromptu drink" at the hotel. The Court found that despite the time and place the managing director was still acting as such – he was exercising his authority over his subordinate employees – and was not merely one of a group of drunken revellers whose conversation had turned to work.

The Court of Appeal went on to say that although the party and drinking session at the hotel was not a seamless event and attendance was voluntary, at the time the managing director was wearing his managing director hat and was exercising managerial control over those employees that were present. There was therefore sufficient connection between the managing director's activities and the assault for the employer to be vicariously liable.

Take note: It seems, following Bellman, that there's scope for an employer to be vicariously liable for incidents occurring during an informal gathering after work, as well as during an organised work social. It's worth bearing in mind however, that these cases are highly face-specific and whether or not an employer will be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees will not always be clear cut.

This article is taken from HR Law - November 2018.

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