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19th December, 2016

Vicarious Liability – Christmas Parties and Punch Ups

It’s one of the biggest fears an employer has during the festive party season – what if someone goes too far after a few drinks and who is liable.

The long established position is that an employer is liable for the actions of its employees if that employee was acting in the course or scope of their employment, but does that include Christmas parties?

In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104 (QB) the High Court was faced with the question whether an employer could be held vicariously liable for injuries caused by an employee after a work’s Christmas party had ended.

In this case, Mr John Major was a director and shareholder of Northampton Recruitment and Mr Clive Bellman was a Sales Manager. Both parties, along with other employees of Northampton Recruitment, attended the Collingtree Golf Club for the Christmas party. Alcohol was consumed by many attending. Northampton Recruitment was paying for the Christmas party, hotel accommodation and/ or taxis home.

Following the end of the Christmas party at the Golf Club, some of the guests, including Mr Major and Mr Bellman, decided to go on to the Hilton Hotel (where a number of the guests were staying). Crucially, this was not a pre planned extension to the Christmas party. The drinking continued. At around 2.45am a group, including Mr Major and Mr Bellman, went outside and discussed company business. The discussion became heated and Mr Major returned to the hotel and summoned the remaining employees and began to lecture them on how he is in charge of the company. Mr Bellman, non-aggressively, challenged a statement made by Mr Major. This prompted Mr Major to punch Mr Bellman, who fell down. Mr Bellman got back up and held out his hands in a gesture of surrender. Mr Major was being held back by two other employees but managed to break free and punched Mr Bellman again. Mr Bellman fell back and hit his head on the ground, was rendered unconscious and had blood coming from his ears. Mr Bellman now suffers from severe brain injury.

In considering whether Northampton Recruitment should be held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major, Judge Cotter QC helpfully summarised the principles surrounding vicarious liability which have been developed in case law. The main principles are:

  • An employer is not liable for an assault by his employee merely because it occurred during working hours;
  • Two questions should be considered; what was the nature of the employee’s job and was there a sufficient connection between the position in which the employee was employed and his wrongful conduct for the employer to be held liable?;
  • It is a case sensitive assessment;
  • Consideration must be had to the time and place at which the act occurred but this may not be conclusive; and
  • The policy underlying the form of liability should always be born in mind.

Judge Cotter QC then went on to apply the principles to the facts of the case focusing firstly on the nature of Mr Major’s job. It was concluded that, as Managing Director, part of his job included motivating employees which would encompass hosting events such as the Christmas party. However, just because Mr Major has a wide range of duties and carries them out over a long duration of time during the working week, it cannot be said that he is potentially on duty at all times because he was in the company of other employees.

Secondly, the connection between Mr Major’s employment and the wrongful conduct was considered. Notably, the assault was committed after an organised work event. There was an expectation that all employees should attend the Christmas party but this expectation ended once the employees left the Golf Club. It was held that a line could be drawn under the event held at the Golf Club. Judge Cotter’s opinion was that it could not be held that the spontaneous drinks at the Hilton Hotel were an extension of the Christmas party. In addition, Judge Cotter considered that not so much weight should be attached to what was being discussed i.e. work matters, rather than the time and place of the discussion. The fact that the discussion was about work matters was held to not be a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against Northampton Recruitment.

Northampton Recruitment was not held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major.

Employers should assess the risks and think about guiding employees on their conduct. This guidance should apply to directors and not just employed staff.


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