Employment Law Speed Read – 22/10/18
22nd October, 2018
In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal held that an employer was vicariously liable for the injuries sustained by an employee, after he was assaulted by the Managing Director of the company at an impromptu after-work party.
Mr Bellman was employed as a sales manager for Northampton Recruitment Ltd (the “Company”). The Company was small, and was predominantly run by Mr Major, the Managing Director.
On 16 December 2011, the Company organised a Christmas party for its office staff and their partners. The Company paid for the food and drink, and had arranged for the guests to stay at a nearby hotel. As the party was drawing to a close, Mr Major paid for taxis to take the guests to a hotel so that they could continue socialising.
The night progressed and the topic of conversation turned to work-related matters. The conversation became heated and in an altercation between Mr Bellman and Mr Major, Mr Major assaulted Mr Bellman. Mr Bellman sustained severe injuries which resulted in traumatic brain damage. Mr Bellman claimed against the Company on the basis of vicarious liability.
The High Court
At first instance, the Court found in favour of the Company and held that they were not vicariously liable for the injuries sustained by Mr Bellman. The Court held that there was an insufficient connection between Mr Major’s position as the Managing Director of the Company and his wrongful conduct. Although Mr Major had a wide range of duties, it was held that it would be incorrect to infer that Mr Major was ‘on duty’ solely because he was in the presence of his employees.
The fact that the altercation occurred during a work-related discussion was insufficient to support a finding of vicarious liability. Mr Bellman appealed to the Court of Appeal (CA).
Court of Appeal
The CA found in favour of Mr Bellman and allowed his appeal. The CA held that there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s position and his wrongful conduct; as such, the Company was vicariously liable for the injuries sustained by Mr Bellman. The CA stated that when considering whether an act occurred ‘in the course of employment’, an individual’s employment must be viewed broadly.
Despite the fact that the altercation occurred at a hotel and in the early hours of the morning, Mr Major was still purporting to act as the Managing Director of the Company. The CA placed significance on the fact that Mr Major organised the party, and that it was paid for by the Company. Further, Mr Major’s position of seniority was an important factor; during the altercation with Mr Bellman, Mr Major had asserted his authority and was therefore wearing his “metaphorical Managing Director’s hat.”
This case demonstrates that an employer may be held vicariously liable for injuries sustained by an employee at an after-work party.
However, liability will not necessarily arise solely on the basis that one employee has assaulted another employee, regardless of the circumstances. Lord Justice Irwin was careful to limit the application of the case and stated that the facts of this case are “unusual” and that “this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely”.
If you have any questions on the above and how it will affect you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a member of our employment team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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