In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court found that the Northampton Recruitment Ltd was not vicariously liable for a violent assault by an employee (its Managing Director) on a colleague at an impromptu drinking session straight after the Company’s Christmas party.
The managing director of the Northampton Recruitment Ltd was Mr Major. In 2010 he recruited the Claimant, Mr Bellman, a childhood friend, as a sales manager.
The Company Christmas party took place at a golf club with a free bar. The company invited all employees plus their partners and 24 people in total attended. After the party had ended, half of the employees, including Mr Bellman and Mr Major went on to a hotel to have further drinks. This was impromptu drinks and was not a planned extension of the party albeit that the Company had paid for the taxis to the hotel as the Company had paid taxi fares for all party guests.
The majority of the group continued to drink alcohol expecting the Company would pay for at least some of the drinks. The group discussed a variety of topics. However, the majority of the discussions had been social topics until about 2.00am. The conversation then turned to a work-related matter. A controversial issue arose concerning whether the base of a recently appointed employee ought to be at the Northampton office or the Nuneaton office. Mr Major lost his temper. He originally stormed off. However, he subsequently returned summoning the remaining employees. He began to lecture them on how he owned the Company and that he could do exactly what he wanted.
When Mr Bellman challenged him, in a non-aggressive manner, Mr Major swore at Mr Bellman. He then punched him knocking him to the floor. When he got back up he held out his hand in a gesture of surrender. Another employee tried to hold Mr Major back but he broke free and punched Mr Bellman a second time. The second blow knocked Mr Bellman to the floor again, however, this time fracturing his skull and rendering him unconscious. Mr Bellman sustained irreparable brain damage. Later medical reports confirmed severe brain damage and that it was unlikely that Mr Bellman would be able to work again.
Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages for personal injury against his employer. This was on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct.
The High Court dismissed the claim. It held that the Company was not vicariously liable for the assault on the basis that:
- The assault was committed after and not during the organised work-social event.
- The fact that the conversation had turned to work did not transform what was clearly a recreational activity into something properly viewed as in the course of employment.
- The assault arose in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in an impromptu heavy early-hours drinking session not seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party.
- The drinks were separate from the Christmas party itself and at a separate location.
- That whilst there were employees’ partners there, other guests were present as well.
- The conversation had been largely on non-work related topics.
- Whilst the Company was expected to pay for some or all of the drinks and a work-related discussion triggered the attack, in which the managing director felt that there was a challenge to his authority, these factors did not outweigh the other factors and bring the encounter within the course of his employment.
- The High Court found that 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.’
Having made these findings, the Court held that there was an insufficient connection between the position in which the director was employed and the assault to make it right for his employer to be vicariously liable.
Employers should exercise caution. This decision did not change the law. Nor did it establish that post-Christmas party drinks are outside the scope of employment for vicarious liability purposes. The Court made it clear that each case is examined on its facts.
This decision is an important reminder to employers of the serious risks that can accompany Christmas parties where alcohol runs freely. While the assault was found in this case not to have taken place in the course of employment, each case will turn on its own facts.
Employers should provide clear written guidance to all employees about acceptable standards of behaviour at work-related social events. Either organised or informal.
Christmas Party Practical advice and tips
- Prior to the Christmas party you should send out a warning and reminder that the Christmas party is a work activity and an extension of work time;
- If an incident does occur at the Christmas party, you need to decide whether you need to suspend the individuals involved;
- You need to conduct an investigation as soon as possible and interview those who witnessed the incident;
- If you determine that there is a disciplinary case to answer, then you need to invite the employee(s) to a disciplinary hearing to discuss the evidence against them;
- Once you have gone through the evidence, give them an opportunity to respond to the evidence against them. Listen to any mitigating circumstances then you need to determine the outcome of the disciplinary hearing;
- You should write to them to confirm the outcome of the disciplinary hearing and offer the right to appeal.
Please note that you do not necessarily have to follow this process for employees with less than two years’ service. Any questions or concerns regarding this please do not hesitate to contact us.
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