• Company not Vicariously Liable for Director’s Assault on Employee Following Christmas Party

    In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court has held that a company was not vicariously liable for the assault by one of its directors on an employee following a company Christmas party. Although the assault was provoked by a heated discussion about a work matter, and occurred in the presence of employees in a hotel bar to which they had gone after the party, the High Court was satisfied that a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu drinks’, such that the latter did not occur in the course of the employment.

    M was managing director of NR Ltd. In 2010 he recruited B, a friend. The company Christmas party in 2011 took place at a golf club. All employees plus their partners were invited, totalling 24 people. Following the party, half of the guests, including M and B, went on to a hotel where some were staying. This was not a planned extension of the party. However, since the company paid taxi fares for all party guests, it paid for taxis to the hotel. The majority of the group continued to drink alcohol and it was expected that the company – acting through M – would pay for at least some of the drinks. The conversation was initially on social topics but by about 2:00 am it turned to work matters. A controversial issue arose and M lost his temper. M began to lecture the employees present on how he owned the company and made the decisions. When B challenged him, in a non-aggressive manner, M punched him twice. The second blow knocked him out, causing him to fall and sustain brain damage. B brought a claim for damages against NR Ltd on the basis that it was vicariously liable for M’s conduct.

    The High Court rejected the claim. His Honour Judge Cotter QC noted that the boundaries of this form of liability have often proved difficult to identify and remain so, despite the Supreme Court’s recent exposition of the law in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc. He took into account that M was authorised to act on the company’s behalf with a wide remit and that things were done ‘his way’. He also noted that M viewed his job as involving motivation of employees, including the provision of benefits such as the Christmas party. M was able to take decisions as to expenditure and it was no doubt at his discretion that the party, drinks, accommodation and taxis were paid for by the company. However, HHJ Cotter did not accept that the effect of such a wide range and duration of duties was that M should always be considered to be on duty solely because he was in the company of other employees, regardless of circumstances.

    Among the factors pointing away from a finding of vicarious liability was the fact that the assault was committed after, not during, a work social event. A line could be drawn between the Christmas party at the golf club and the ‘impromptu drink’ at the hotel – there was a temporal and substantive difference between the two, and the latter was not a seamless extension of the former. The fact that the assault occurred in the context of a discussion about work had only a limited effect on the question of liability. Although Lord Toulson in Mohamud suggested that the actual words spoken in the context of the assault were important in establishing liability, merely raising a work-related topic cannot have the effect, of itself, of changing an interaction between colleagues into something ‘in the course of employment’, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. If the mere fact of a discussion being between employees and about work were enough for liability to arise, it would mean that a company’s potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable.

    HHJ Cotter thought it also relevant to consider the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting B at risk of injury at the relevant time. Although the provision of alcohol brings with it an increased risk of confrontation, it is customarily provided at Christmas parties and can be safely enjoyed in moderation, and it was notable that the party itself passed without incident. What followed later arose in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session. Even assuming that the company paid for some or most of the eventual bill, any increased risk of confrontation arising from the additional alcohol at the hotel could not properly be treated as supporting a finding of vicarious liability, being so far removed from employment.


    Report by Thomson Reuters.


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