After the after-party – vicarious liability

It’s been nearly 2 years since we first reported on the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment in our article, ‘Christmas time, fisticuffs and wine’.

In summary, the case related to a managing director who assaulted one of his employees at a spontaneous after-party which followed the work Christmas do. Unfortunately, the employee suffered serious injuries as a result and brought a personal injury claim. The High Court held that the company were not vicariously liable for the actions of its MD, as there was insufficient connection between the position in which the MD was employed and the assault to make it right for the company to be held liable.

The case has now been heard by the Court of Appeal, which held, applying the Supreme Court decision in Mohamud (see our article on that case here), that the company was vicariously liable.

The Court of Appeal outlined the relevant questions to be asked: first, what was the nature of the employee’s job, and second, was there sufficient connection between the position in which the employee was employed and the wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable.

The Court held that it in considering the nature of the employee’s job, it is the field of activities assigned to the employee that is relevant, not just what the employee was expressly authorised to do. In this case, the Managing Director was found to have a very wide remit and authority. The Court found that at the after-party, the Managing Director was seeking to exercise his authority over his subordinate employees, and he ‘was not merely one of a group of drunken revellers whose conversation had turned to work’.

In particular, the Court noted that although the after-party was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party, neither was it ‘just an impromptu drinks party between work colleagues which might happen on any night of the week after work’. The after-party had occurred on the same evening as the Christmas do, which had been paid for and organised by the Managing Director on behalf of the company.

Although this particular case related to personal injury, the same principle of vicarious liability applies in other employment related matters, particularly discrimination claims, so it is something that all employers need to be very aware of.

Vicarious liability cases tend to be very fact specific, and Lord Justice Irwin commented in the Bellman case on how unusual the facts of this case were. He also emphasised that ‘liability will not arise merely because there is an argument about work matters between colleagues, which leads to an assault, even when one colleague is markedly more senior than another’. However, given the outcome of this case, employers should be wise to the risk of being found vicariously liable for an employee’s actions. As we mentioned in our previous article on vicarious liability, risk management is key and having adequate training and robust policies in place will help to minimise the risks.

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.