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Post-Christmas party assault – who is liable?

Last week the High Court gave its judgment on whether a company was vicariously liable for an assault by a director on an employee after their Christmas Party.

An employer can be found vicariously liable for their employee’s actions if the employee is shown to have been ‘acting in the course or scope of his employment’. Although the boundaries and general scope of vicarious liability can often prove to be difficult to identify, courts focus on the closeness of the connection between the duties of the employee and the wrongdoing they are accused of.

The ‘close connection’ test offers little guidance on what is to be regarded as sufficiently close to allow a court to find an employer liable where an employee has engaged in wrongdoing. Consequently, each case turns on its own facts, with previous decisions providing limited definitive guidance.

Particularly during the work party season, it is useful for employers to remember that, even though parties tend to take place out of the office and outside usual working hours, employers can be held responsible for improper behaviour of employees at organised work events like Christmas parties, as they are an extension of the working environment.

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

Mr Major was the managing director and a shareholder of Northampton Recruitment Ltd. In 2010 he recruited a friend, Mr Bellman, as a sales manager for the company. The Christmas party in 2011 took place at Collingtree Gold Club, where all members of staff plus their partners were invited, and nearly all attended. By all accounts, a reasonable quantity of alcohol was consumed by those attending the party at the golf club. After the party had ended, some employees went home but over half of the guests (including Mr Major and Mr Bellman) went on to the hotel in which they were staying, where the drinking continued. The company paid for the taxis from the golf club to the hotel, but it wasn’t an organised extension of the party.

For the majority of the evening the conversation was on social topics, but towards the end of the evening the topic turned more towards work matters. An argument arose about the recent appointment of a member of staff and Mr Major began to lose his temper with what he perceived to be employees questioning his authority. He lectured those present about how he owned the company, he was in charge and he would do what he wanted. At this point, Mr Bellman passed comment in relation to the recent appointment. Mr Major retaliated and went on to punch Mr Bellman in the face. Mr Bellman fell to the floor and Mr Major was restrained by colleagues. As Mr Bellman got up, with his eye bleeding, he pleaded with Mr Major, who broke free from the colleagues and punched Mr Bellman again, knocking him out.

Mr Bellman struck his head on the floor and sustained life changing brain injuries.

A decision was made not to proceed with any criminal charges against Mr Major, a decision heavily criticised by the judge in this case. However, a claim for damages was brought to the High Court against the Company by Mr Bellman, claiming that the company was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. The claim was brought against the company as it was perceived that Mr Major would not personally have sufficient funds to discharge any award and in the knowledge that the company carried insurance.

Decision

The High Court dismissed Mr Bellman’s claim.

The court was satisfied that a clear distinction could be made between the Christmas party and the ‘impromptu drinks’ which took place afterwards in the hotel, saying the latter was not in the course of the employment. This was despite the fact that the incident took place following a heated work discussion and in front of other employees and despite the evidence that Mr Major had been asserting himself as the ‘directing mind and will’ of the company directly before the attack happened.

However, the court pointed out that they could not support a claim for vicariously liability simply because there were other employees present and they were talking about work. Even though Mr Major clearly had a wide range of responsibilities and duties, he could not always be considered to be on duty.

The court considered numerous factors to be of particular importance when making their decision. Firstly, the assault was committed after, rather than during, the organised social event, and there was no obligation on any employees to attend the hotel for drinks afterwards. Impromptu drinks could not be seen as a ‘seamless extension of the Christmas party’. Furthermore, the fact the assault took place after a discussion about work related issues was held to be of little importance. Finally, the court considered the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting Mr Bellman and other employees at risk of injury at the relevant time. Although the Defendant company had paid for the alcohol at the golf club, alcohol is typically provided at all Christmas parties and can be easily enjoyed safely and in moderation. No confrontation arose at the party itself, and the impromptu drinks were an entirely voluntary drinking session, leading to a drunken discussion.

Therefore, the court dismissed the claim saying there was an insufficient connection between Mr Major’s position of employment and the assault to make it right for the Defendant to be held liable.

Comment

There has been much conjecture recently as to what extent an employer should be liable for their employees’ actions, and what acting ‘in the course of employment’ actually means. In the recent leading case of Mohamud v Wm Morrison Supermarkets PLC (reported in our alert on 11 March 2016) in which an employer was found vicariously liable for their employee’s actions, the test was described as being ‘imprecise’, and in each individual case the court is to make an evaluative judgement.

It should be noted that in the Bellman case, although there was found to be no vicarious liability, if the assault had taken place during the organised Christmas party, the decision may have been an entirely different one. Take note of our alert from last week about the perils of the festive period.

If you require any further advice in relation to employment law or HR matters, please contact Joanne Holborn, Tom Scaife or Caroline Rayner on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

This alert does not provide a full statement of the law and readers are advised to take legal advice before taking any action based on the information set out above.

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