Although employers can be held vicariously liable for their employees’ conduct, it has to be closely connected with the acts that the employee was authorised to do. In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal held that that an assault committed at a drinks event following a company party could 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, organised (and paid for) the company’s Christmas party at the golf club in Northamptonshire. After the party ended, Mr Major paid for taxis for about half the guests to go onto the Hilton Hotel for more drinks which he also paid for. This extension to the work event had not been pre-planned.
After a couple of hours, the conversation turned to work and Mr Bellman started talking about a new employee who he believed was being paid more than him. This enraged Mr Major who started to lecture his employees that he was in charge and could do what he wanted. He then lost his temper completely, hitting Mr Bellman twice. After his head struck the ground, Mr Bellman was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with traumatic 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, which involved proving that he had been acting “within the course of his employment”.
High Court decision
The judge dismissed the claim (see weekly LELR 504) on the basis that 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.
As there was no connection between the topic of conversation and the employees’ jobs when it centred around social or sporting topics, it followed that there could not be a connection when the conversation veered onto a topic about work. As such, the judge concluded that this was an “entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet [sic] early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant's business. To use a hackneyed expression [it was] akin to "a frolic" of their own”.
Court of Appeal decision
Although the Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court judge that the unscheduled drinking session was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party it had to be viewed against the background of the evening's events, which was a work party paid for and orchestrated by Mr Major on behalf of the company.
However, it also held that even if Mr Major had taken off his managerial hat when he first arrived at the hotel, he chose to put it on again when he started to lecture his employees about the scope of his authority as managing director. Indeed, the employees who took part in the drinking session can have been in no doubt at that stage that Mr Major was purporting to exercise managerial control over them.
Upholding the appeal, the Court of Appeal therefore concluded that despite the time and the place, Mr Major was purporting to act as managing director of Northampton Recruitment, meaning there was a sufficient connection between his “field of activities” and the assault to render the company vicariously liable for his actions.
It should be noted that the Court of Appeal emphasised that vicarious liability in 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.