There are always lots of employment law articles and blogs around this time of year all about the rights and wrongs of the office Christmas party, usually warning employers of the risk that they could be found vicariously liable for the actions of their employees should things get out of hand. In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment, however, the High Court held that a company was not liable for an assault by its managing director on an employee at an after-party following the company Christmas do.
Back in March, we looked at two Supreme Court cases covering situations where an employer can be held responsible for the actions of an employee. In Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets, the Supreme Court held that an employee’s assault on a customer at a Morrison’s petrol station was so closely connected with his employment that it would be just to hold Morrison liable for the customer’s injuries.
In the Bellman case, however, the High Court noted that the boundaries of vicarious liability are difficult to identify, despite the decision in the Morrison case.
Mr Bellman worked as a sales manager for a recruitment agency where Mr Major was the managing director. One year, the Christmas party for staff and their partners took place at a golf club. The party was described in the judgment as “an ordinary or usual work Christmas party of the type no doubted dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others”. After the party, just over half of the guests went on to the Hilton Hotel (where some of the guests were staying).
Some of the guests gathered in the hotel lobby, drinking alcohol and discussing social topics. Discussions moved on to company business, and then to a new employee who had started with the company about a month or so before the Christmas party, and who was rumoured to be earning significantly more than anyone else in the company. During the discussion, Mr Bellman challenged Mr Major, in a non-aggressive way, about the new employee but Mr Major lost his temper and assaulted Mr Bellman, punching him twice. Mr Bellman fell to the floor following the second punch, hit his head, and suffered brain damage as result of his injuries.
In finding that the company was not vicariously liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries, the court noted that:
- The assault was committed after and not during an organised work social event. The after-party at the hotel was a spontaneous event, and not a ‘seamless extension’ of the Christmas party.
- The assault was so far removed from employment that the company could not be held vicariously liable, though the company footed the bill including the taxis and drinks.
- It was not right for Mr Major to always be considered to be on duty, just because he was in the company of other employees regardless of the circumstances.
- Just because the discussion was about work related issues did not of itself change a conversation between fellow workers into something ‘in the course of employment’, regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
The decision is a surprising one, in light of the Supreme Court judgment in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets, and perhaps even more surprising given that the assault was carried out by the managing director. Mr Bellman suffered serious injuries, the result of which is that he is unlikely to work again, and, with Mr Major not being a party to the claim on the basis that he would lack the means to satisfy any judgment against him, it leaves Mr Bellman with no recourse to any compensation. The High Court noted, however, that if it were the case that a discussion between employees about work was enough for liability to arise, “it would mean that a company’s potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable”.
This case does not mean that employers can never be vicariously liable for incidents occurring after an organised work social event, as the case was very fact specific. The High Court’s decision may yet be appealed on behalf of Mr Bellman. Had the assault taken place at the golf club, or had it been found that the expectation or obligation on any employee to participate had not ended, the employer may have found themselves held liable.
At this time of year it is worth remembering that employers can also be held vicariously liable for acts of discrimination by employees committed in the course of their employment. As we have mentioned previously, there is a statutory defence available in discrimination cases, if the employer can show that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the discrimination. It would therefore be prudent to make sure that Equal Opportunities policies are in place and up to date, and that employees are aware of them and receive training in equal opportunities.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).
Please note that this update is not intended to be exhaustive or be a substitute for legal advice. The application of the law in this area will often depend upon the specific facts and you are advised to seek specific advice on any given scenario.