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Was it assault at the Christmas party?

Mr Bellman was employed by Northampton Recruitment Ltd (NR) as a sales manager. NR held a Christmas party which was attended by ten of the eleven members of staff and other guests, including managing director, Mr Major. Following the Christmas party, Mr Major paid for taxis to a nearby Hilton Hotel where half of the members of staff carried on drinking. As the evening went on the talk turned to work and there were words exchanged about the positioning and salary of a new member of staff. Mr Major became aggressive in relation to this conversation and “summoned” all of the staff to him and began to lecture them on how he was the managing director, he was in charge and ultimately how his decision was the only decision. When questioned, non-aggressively, by Mr Bellman, Mr Major lost his temper exclaiming that he made the decisions in the company and punched Mr Bellman causing bleeding to his left eye. He was restrained by two other members of staff but broke free, punching Mr Bellman again, knocking him out and causing him life changing brain injuries as he hit his head off the floor.

The High Court initially dismissed Mr Bellman’s claim as they could not support a claim for vicarious 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.

Decision

The Court of Appeal has allowed Mr Bellman’s appeal, disagreeing with the High Court. It emphasised that the case arose “because of the way in which Mr Major chose to exert his authority, indeed his dominance as the only real decision-maker, in the company. Hence there is liability.” It set out that there was sufficient connection between the Christmas party and the post-party gathering due to Mr Major’s decision to wear his metaphorical managing director’s hat when he delivered the lecture to his employees. They set out that it was not merely a discussion about work that led to the altercation but rather Mr Major using his position to exercise his managerial authority in NR.

The Court of Appeal agreed that although the post-party gathering was not an extension of the Christmas party, Mr Major had already been fulfilling his managerial duties for a large part of the evening as he organised and paid for the party which was on the same evening. He also paid for the taxis to the next venue further proving him not as a “fellow reveller” but the managing director of NR. He misused his position during discussions that lasted for up to an hour in which his managerial decision making was challenged. The Court found he therefore engaged his role of managing director and was acting within his “field of activities” when he assaulted Mr Bellman.

Comment 

The circumstances in this case are rare; it does not set a precedent that any discussions about work between colleagues outside of the working environment mean that the employer is automatically vicariously liable. The deciding factor in this case is that the work discussions were turned in to an exercise for Mr Major to exert his authority in his role as managing director over his employees, ultimately resulting in the assault on Mr Bellman. The actions of Mr Major provided sufficient connection to his “field of activity” as the MD and the assault to render NR liable.

However, the case serves as a reminder to employers that organised events such as the Christmas party are an extension of the working environment and it should be remembered that employers can be held vicariously liable for acts by employees in such circumstances – even when the event in question is outside of working hours and away from the usual place of work. Any issues should be dealt with in the same way as it would be if it had happened in the office.

 If you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact the employment team on 01228 552600 or 01524 548494.

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