Employer not Vicariously Liable for Assault after Office Party

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Posted on 08 Dec 2016

An employer was not liable for an assault committed by the Managing Director on a sales manager at impromptu drinks following the office party. 

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the company Christmas party at a golf club, attended by the company’s 12 employees and their partners, passed without incident. However, half the guests went on to a hotel where some of them were staying and they carried on drinking. Conversation turned to work matters and Mr Major, the Managing Director, lost his temper after the subject of a recent staff appointment was raised. Mr Major began to lecture the employees present about how he owned the company and made the decisions. When Mr Bellman challenged him in a non-aggressive manner, Mr Major punched him twice. The second blow knocked him out and he fell and suffered brain damage. 

Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages against the company, arguing that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct. 

The High Court noted that an employer is only liable for acts of employees committed in the course of their employment. It had to consider whether there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s duties as Managing Director and the assault to make it right that his employer should be held liable. It considered that there was not. 

Mr Major was in overall charge of what was a small company. His duties were wide-ranging and things were done his way. They included motivating employees through the provision of benefits, such as the Christmas party, which was arranged and paid for at his direction (including the drinks, hotel accommodation and taxis to and from the venue and hotel). He would have seen it as part of his job to oversee the smooth running of the Christmas party. However, the effect of such wide ranging duties was not that Mr Major should always considered to be on duty, solely because he was in the company of other employees, regardless of the circumstances. 

The assault was committed after and not during an organised work social event. It was possible to draw a line between the party at the golf club and the “impromptu drinks” afterwards at the hotel. This was not just a difference in timing. The two were substantively different, and the “impromptu drinks” were not a seamless extension of the party. Although the assault occurred in the context of a discussion about work, this was not sufficient on its own to change social interaction between colleagues into something “in the course of employment”, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. 

The judge also considered the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting Mr Bellman at risk of injury at the relevant time. Although providing alcohol carries an increased risk of confrontation, it is customary to provide it at Christmas parties and it was notable that the party itself passed without incident. The assault arose in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session. Even if the company was paying for some or most of the eventual bill, the assault was still too far removed from employment for the employer to be held vicariously liable. The judge therefore concluded that there was insufficient connection between Mr Major’s duties and the assault to make it right that the employer should be held vicariously liable. 

The judge drew a clear distinction between events occurring at the office party, where there is an expectation that staff will attend (even if there is no obligation to do so), and a personal voluntary choice to carry on drinking with colleagues afterwards. Given the time and place when the assault occurred and the fact that conversation was on social and sporting topics before turning to work matters, no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of the employees present. If the mere fact of a conversation between colleagues about work was enough for liability to arise, a company’s potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable. 

With the Christmas party season under way, this decision is good news for employers. However, cases on vicarious liability will always turn on their own facts.

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