Employer liable for injury to employee at impromptu work party

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

An employer was vicariously liable for life-changing injuries inflicted by its managing director on one of its employees at a Christmas party.

The principle of vicarious liability is that an employer is held responsible for the acts of its employees when they are acting ‘in the course of employment’. The test the courts use in such instances is two-fold:

  • Is the relationship between the wrongdoer and the party alleged to be liable capable of giving rise to vicarious liability? If so,
  • Is there a sufficiently close connection between the actions and the employment insofar that it will be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable?

Background

Mr Bellman worked as a sales manager for Northampton Recruitment (NR). In December 2011 NR held its Christmas party at a local golf club. Most of the employees and their partners and a few guests attended. Much alcohol flows. At around midnight, when the party was finishing, the managing director Mr Major, initiated a move to a nearby hotel, where the guests could continue to drink and talk. Mr Major then launched into a drunken tirade at the staff, lecturing them and telling them he’s the boss and that he can do what he thinks is right. Mr Bellman questioned Mr Major’s decisions – and Mr Major did not like it. So much so that he punches Mr Bellman twice, knocking him out, so that he fell to the floor and suffered traumatic brain damage.

Mr Bellman sued NR, alleging that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s assault. The High Court dismissed the claim, finding that what had occurred was a drunken discussion following ‘a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a work event had ended’ and the fact that before the assault the conversation had turned to work could not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability. Mr Bellman appealed. He argued that the judge had failed to take account of the nature of Mr Major’s job and was wrong to hold that there was insufficient connection between the position in which he was employed and his conduct.

Court of Appeal decision

Mr Bellman’s appeal was allowed.

The judge hearing the initial case had failed to take account of the nature of Mr Major’s role ‘and the power and authority entrusted to him over subordinate employees’; the fact the act of misconduct was triggered by a challenge to his managerial authority; and that the risk of wrongful conduct was enhanced by NR’s provision of alcohol.

Looking at the nature of Mr Major’s job, the Court of Appeal held that even had Mr Major taken off his managerial hat when he first arrived at the venue, ‘he chose to don it once more and to re-engage his wide remit as managing director and to misuse his position when his managerial decisions were challenged. [He] was purporting to exercise managerial control over [the employees] … There is no suggestion … that Mr Major’s behaviour arose as a result of something personal’.

Despite the time and place at which the assault occurred Mr Major’s position of seniority persisted and was a significant factor. He was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to assert his authority over the staff who were present and re-assert that authority when he thought it necessary.

There was, as a matter of law, sufficient connection between Mr Major’s field of activities and the assault to render it just that NR should be vicariously liable for his actions.

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/2214.html

Comment

The development of the ‘close connection’ test is making it increasingly difficult for employers to avoid a finding of vicarious liability.

For those thinking that office Christmas parties are now a thing of the past and fraught with insuperable difficulties, it is perhaps worth heeding the words of Lord Justice Irwin, who delivered a concurring judgment. He emphasised how unusual these facts were and ‘how limited will be the parallels to this case’:

'What was crucial here was that the discussions about work became an exercise in laying down the law by Mr Major, indeed an explicit assertion of his authority, vehemently and crudely expressed by him, with the intention of quelling dissent. That exercise of authority was something he was entitled to carry out if he chose to do so, and however unwise it may have been to do so in such circumstances, it did arise from the “field of activity” assigned to him ... This case arose because of the way in which Mr Major chose to exert his authority, indeed his dominance as the only real decision maker, in the company. Hence there is liability. I do emphasise that this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely. 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. This case is emphatically not authority for the proposition that employers became insurers for violent or other tortious acts by their employees’.