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".

Facts

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.

Decision

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.

Comment

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.

CONTACT CHRIS

If you would like more information or advice relating to this article or an Employment law or Data Protection matter, please do not hesitate to contact Chris Cook on 01727 798089.

© SA LAW 2021

Every care is taken in the preparation of our articles. However, no responsibility can be accepted to any person who acts on the basis of information contained in them alone. You are recommended to obtain specific advice in respect of individual cases.

Read the latest Employment Views & Insights
They seek to understand their clients and advise accordingly to achieve the outcomes that they require for their business needs.
Chambers and Partners
SA Law Work Life red mug and glasses
SA Law Employment Laptop
Views & Insights
FAQs: Coronavirus Vaccinations and the workplace

As the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues, employers should prepare for its impact on their workforce, potential employment law pitfalls and…

Read More
Stained glass window Employment SA Law
Views & Insights
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) extended to 30th September 2021

The 2021 Budget has announced the extension of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to 30 September 2021 which is a welcome relief for employees and employers…

Read More
SA Law Employment Laptop
Views & Insights
The UK’s Points-Based Immigration System

Chris Cook and Nishma Chudasama look at the new points-based immigration system which came into force on 1st January 2021.

Read More
Phone Box with Man in a Bowler Hat
As there is so much expertise on offer from SA Law they can provide a legal expert on all areas so that it can be handled under one roof.
Legal 500
Stained glass window Employment SA Law
Views & Insights
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme Extended

CJRS extended from 31 October 2020 to 31 March 2021 as UK ushers in lockdown 2.0

Read More
Stained glass window Employment SA Law
Views & Insights
Winter Economy Plan - What is the Job Support Scheme and how will it work?

Chris Cook examines the key points from Rishi Sunak's coronavirus winter economy plan.

Read More
SA Law Red arrow neon light image
Views & Insights
Data Protection and workplace coronavirus testing

Managing the data protection challenges of workplace coronavirus testing

Read More
Stained glass window Employment SA Law
Views & Insights
Guidance for enabling a safe “return to work”

A guide to returning to work safely for those who are unable to work from home.

Read More
They are knowledgeable, with a commercial mindset, but also down to earth and friendly so it is easy to be very honest with them.
Chambers and Partners