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Christmas party caution

The Court of Appeal in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd has held that a company was vicariously liable for an assault carried out on an employee by their managing director following a Christmas party.

Background

The Christmas party for Northampton Recruitment Ltd (“the Company”) took place at a golf club. When the “official” Christmas party at the golf club had come to an end, the guests decided to continue the night with an “impromptu drink” at a hotel where some of them were staying. The Company paid for the guests taxi’s to the hotel and it was expected to pay for at least some of the drinks.

Although discussion between the guests was social at first, talk soon turned to a matter of contention related to work. This led to the Managing Director of the Company ‘lecturing’ the employees about his right to make decisions as the owner of the Company. After about 45 minutes of the Managing Director’s lecture the Claimant challenged him which led to the Managing Director punching him twice.

As a result of the second punch, the Claimant fell to the floor, fracturing his skull and sustaining severe brain damage.

The Claimant brought a claim for damages against the Company on the basis that the Company was vicariously liable for the actions of the Managing Director.

The Law

An employer can be vicariously liable for the acts of an employee “committed in the course of employment”.

When deciding if the acts are “committed in the course of employment” the court must consider whether the acts “are so closely connected with employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable”.

Decision

The High Court dismissed the claim holding that there was insufficient connection between the role of Managing Director and the assault to establish vicarious liability. It held that the drinks at the hotel were separate from the Christmas party and that the incident had arisen in the context of “voluntary and personal choices” to engage in a heavy drinking session.

The Claimant appealed.

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal. It held that the Managing Director was not just one of a group of drunken revellers at an impromptu party, he had chosen to wear his “managing director’s hat” when lecturing the employees about work and misused his authority in his position. Therefore, there was sufficient connection between the Managing Director and the assault to be “in the course of employment”. The Company was therefore vicariously liable.

Comment

Many businesses will be planning their Christmas parties around now and most will be an enjoyable occasion that will pass without issue. However, a minority may encounter problems which could now potentially lead to the employer becoming liable for the acts of staff. It is advisable for all employers to have policies setting out standards of expected behaviour and remind staff that those standards are expected at work social events.

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