Although employers can be held vicariously liable for conduct carried out by their employees, it has to be closely connected with the acts that the employee was authorised to do. In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court held that an assault committed after a company works party could not be said to have been carried out in the course of the employee’s employment.
Mr Major, a director and shareholder in Northampton Recruitment Ltd, attended the company’s Christmas party at the golf club in Northamptonshire. After the party ended at the golf club, about half the guests went onto the Hilton Hotel sometime between about 12.30 and 1am. One of the guests was another employee, Mr Bellman, with whom Mr Major had been friends since childhood.
Initially, the conversation consisted of “general chit chat” but sometime around 2am the talk turned to work, including plans for the company for the following year. At about 2.45am the discussion turned to the recent appointment of an employee whom Mr Bellman believed was being paid more than him.
At about 3am, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman twice in an unprovoked attack. On the second occasion he knocked him to the floor, where Mr Bellman struck his head. He was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe, traumatic brain injury which resulted in permanent brain damage.
A claim was brought on Mr Bellman’s behalf against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.
High Court decision
To succeed in a claim of vicarious liability for a tort (a civil wrong) committed by an employee, the wrongful conduct must be so closely connected with the act that the employee was authorised to do that that it could be said they were “acting in the ordinary course of the firm's business or [their own] employment". It follows therefore that an employer is not necessarily liable for an assault by an employee merely because it occurred during working hours.
Applying that test to the circumstances in this case, the High Court judge dismissed the claim. Firstly, the assault was committed after and not during the organised work event; and secondly, there was a limit as to the effect that a discussion about work-related issues could have not least because it only started after a long conversation about social topics.
What then followed was a rant by Mr Major about work and a challenge to one of his managerial decisions. It was these which provided the trigger for the assault. Although the company paid for (or was expected to pay for) most of the alcohol that was consumed that evening, any increased risk of confrontation arising from the additional alcohol at the hotel could not support a finding of vicarious liability, as it was so far removed from the employment of anyone who ended up drinking at the hotel.
Basically what took place was a drunken discussion after a personal decision to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended. No objective observer would be able to find any connection with the jobs of the employees who went onto the hotel. The fact that the conversation turned into a discussion about work could not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company. Instead, the post-party event was an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the business of the company.
Existing case law dictates that social events can be an extension of employment and an employer can potentially be vicariously liable for acts committed by their employees during such events. If the assault had taken place during the Christmas party itself, the employer would very likely have been held vicariously liable.