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The festive season is upon us and although work Christmas parties are usually welcomed by everyone, they can sometimes cause concerns for employers and businesses as one employer found out, when they were held vicariously liable for an altercation which occurred during their night out.

Vicarious liability occurs in a situation where someone is held responsible for the acts or omissions of another person. In a workplace context, an employer can be held liable for the acts or omissions of its employees, provided it can be shown that they took place in the course of their employment.

The case, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2018] was recently heard by the Court of Appeal.

The Court heard that at the time of the incident in 2011, Mr Major was the Managing Director and shareholder of Northampton Recruitment Limited. Mr Bellman was employed at the company, holding the position there of Sales Manager. Mr Major and Mr Bellman had been friends since childhood.

Prior to the office annual Christmas party, a new employee had started at the Recruitment Company. There had been rumours circulating amongst employees that this new person was earning substantially more than other employees.

The office party was held before Christmas at a golf club. Quite a few employees attending the event had chosen to say overnight at a nearby hotel and once the party had finished some of the of the guests went back to the hotel and had continued to drink.

In the early hours of the morning, conversation had started to turn towards work, and the issue of the new employee had been raised. Mr Major had become very agitated at being questioned regarding the new employee. He had begun to lecture everyone there that he was free to do as he wanted. When he was non-aggressively challenged by Mr Bellman, Mr Major lost his temper and proceeded to punch Mr Bellman twice. Unfortunately, Mr Bellman sustained devastating brain damage, resulting in him unlikely to work again.

Originally, the High Court had ruled that the company were not vicariously liable for this incident due to the fact that the after drinks at the hotel were not part of the arranged Christmas party, and had been held at a separate location. They held that just because Mr Major had been in the company of his employees, this did not mean that he was on duty, regardless of the circumstances. The High Court decided that due to this, there was insufficient evidence to prove a connection between the assault and the position held by Mr Major.

Mr Bellman lodged an appeal. He argued that there was indeed a connection that would make the company vicariously liable for his injuries. He stated that the assault had occurred as a direct result of him and fellow employees questioning Mr Major about issues within the company, and Mr Major responding asserting his position and authority within the company. The Court of Appeal agreed with this argument, and also put forward that not only had Mr Major assisted with organising the Christmas party, but he had arranged for staff to be transferred to the hotel, and had funded the cost of the drinks at the hotel.  Upon conclusion the Court gave the ruling that the company would be held vicariously liable for Mr Bellman’s injuries that night.

Kathleen Gaughan, a Solicitor in our Personal Injury team comments:

This decision comes at a concerning time for employers and their liability insurers as we have already witnessed the courts quite openly extending the scope of vicarious liability. Employers can now be liable to claimants for the actions of independent contractors.  We have also seen a significant shift in the law whereby employers can now be vicariously liable for actions of their employees, irrespective of the nature of the work.  A quick reading of the decision in Bellman would appear to extend the scope one step further by holding employers liable for the actions of their employees away from the workplace. Is it now difficult to envisage a decision where vicarious liability will not arise?

It’s important to remember that every case turns on its own facts and circumstances. In Bellman, the participants had attended the hotel drinks in their capacity as employees. A sharp distinction was drawn between the night in question and, for example, a weekend sport event where a group of colleagues attend as ‘equals’ for casual drinks. The wrongdoer, Mr Major, was the Managing Director. He was effectively the sole decision maker of the company. The altercation arose in the course of Mr Major exerting his authority.

As Lord Justice Irwin summarised:

This case arose because of the way in which [the MD] chose to exert his authority….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.

If you have suffered from any injury as a result of an accident at work or during an organised work event, that was not your fault, our specialist lawyers can provide expert advice. Our team have vast experience in dealing with a variety of claims involving all types of workplace injuries. Please get in touch, and we will be happy to discuss your potential claim.

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