Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd – Vicarious Liability at the Office Christmas Party
The High Court has held that a company was not vicariously liable for the violent assault of an employee by its Managing Director at a drinking session which followed the company’s Christmas party.
This case provides some much needed clarity as to the boundaries of the rule regarding vicarious liability which can see employers absorb liability for the acts of an employee, committed "in the course of employment" provided that the acts were "so closely connected with the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable".
Following Northampton Recruitment Ltd’s (the Respondent) Christmas party, around half of the guests went on to a hotel for, what the Judge described as, an "impromptu drink". It was not a planned extension of the party, although the Respondent did pay for the relevant taxi fares and it was expected that it would pick up the bill for some of the drinks too.
In the early hours, a controversial discussion began in relation to the recruitment of a new employee. The Claimant, Mr Bellman, challenged the Managing Director on a point he had raised, which appeared to cause the Managing Director to lose his temper. The Claimant was punched twice resulting in his fall to the floor which rendered him unconscious. The Claimant was described as having been bleeding from the ears and suffered severe brain damage as a result of the attack.
The Claimant brought a claim for damages against the Respondent on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the Managing Director’s actions.
The High Court dismissed the claim and held that the Respondent was not vicariously liable for the assault on the Claimant.
The Court's reasoning for this was that the assault occurred at a spontaneous event which was not part of the work Christmas party, despite the fact that some of the bill was expected to be met by the Respondent. In addition, the mere fact that the assault had followed a discussion of work matters did not mean that it was necessarily "in the course of employment". The incident had arisen in the context of "entirely voluntary and personal choices" by those who attended the drinking session.
Whilst there was sympathy for the Claimant’s situation (given that, by the time of the hearing, the Managing Director was no longer a party to the proceedings on the basis that it was felt he would be unable to pay any award of financial compensation), the Court held that the proper application of the principle of vicarious liability meant that boundaries of the rule could not be extended in this case.
Given the terrible career-ending injury suffered by the Claimant (who has no other apparent source of compensation), it seems entirely possible that this finding will be the subject of an appeal.
Notwithstanding the findings of this case, which makes clear that the scope of the rule regarding vicarious liability is not endless, employers should nevertheless exercise caution when engaging in activities which could be caught by this rule.
This decision does not change the law in respect of vicarious liability and does not clearly establish that post-Christmas party drinks are outside the scope of employment for vicarious liability purposes (as each case must be examined on its facts). It is therefore essential, especially in the run up to Christmas, that company policies are up-to-date and cover the type of behaviour which is expected of employees when representing the interests of the business, whether during its organised events or otherwise.