In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWHC 3104, the High Court had to decide whether a company was vicariously liable for injuries caused by an employee after a work Christmas party had ended.
An employer is vicariously liable for a civil wrong committed by its employee if that employee was acting in the course or scope of his employment.
The boundaries of this form of strict liability were considered recently by the Supreme Court in the case of Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc. In Mohamud, Morrisons was held vicariously liable for an unprovoked and violent attack on a customer by a kiosk cashier on the company’s premises because the Supreme Court considered that there was a sufficient connection between the position in which the employee was employed and the wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable (see our briefing of 11 March 2016).
Previous case law has held that work social events can be an extension of employment and accordingly an employer can potentially be vicariously liable for acts committed by its employees during such events.
Mr Major was the managing director and a shareholder of Northampton Recruitment Ltd (the Company). The claimant, Mr Bellman, who was a friend of Mr Major, was recruited in 2010. The Company Christmas party in 2011 was held at a golf course. All of the employees and their partners were invited. After the party, half of the guests - including Mr Bellman and Mr Major - went on to a hotel where some of the guests were staying. The Company paid for taxis to the hotel, although this was not a pre-planned extension to the party.
At the hotel, the majority of guests continued to drink until early in the morning. After some small talk, the topic of discussion turned to work related matters and the recent appointment of a new employee. Mr Major started ranting, lecturing the other guests on how he owned the Company, that he was in charge and that he would do what he wanted to do, that the decisions were his to take and that he paid their wages. Mr Bellman then said something with which Mr Major disagreed and Mr Major punched him twice. During the assault, Mr Bellman was knocked over and hit his head on the marble floor. As a result of the assault, Mr Bellman suffered brain damage.
Mr Bellman brought a claim in the High Court seeking damages from the Company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr Major's actions.
High Court decision
The High Court held that there was an insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and the assault to make it right for the Company to be held vicariously liable. In reaching this decision the High Court considered the following:
- The fact that Mr Major was authorised to act on the Company’s behalf with a wide remit and that things were done his way did not mean that Mr Major should always be considered to be “on duty” when in the company of employees
- The spontaneous post event drink at the hotel could not be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party
- There must be a limit to the effect of a discussion being about work related issues. While the actual words about work related issues were clearly important, merely raising something that relates to duties at work does not have the effect of itself changing a conversation between fellow workers into something in the course of employment. Taken to its extreme, that could lead for example to a discussion about work on the golf course transforming a recreational activity into something in the course of employment. If simply discussing work were enough for liability to arise, a company’s potential liability would become so wide as to become potentially uninsurable
- As to the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting Mr Bellman at risk of injury at the relevant time, the fact that the Company might have been expected to pick up some or all of the bill for the additional alcohol consumed at the hotel did not justify a finding of vicarious liability, as it was so far removed from employment. Alcohol had been provided at the Christmas party and this had passed without incident
- What happened at the hotel was a drunken discussion that occurred after a personal choice to continue drinking into the early hours, long after the work event had ended. It stemmed from a drinking session of a very different nature from the Christmas party and was unconnected with the Company’s business.
As recognised by the High Court, despite the principles of vicarious liability being considered recently in Mohamud, there are continuing difficulties with identifying the boundaries of such liability.
The courts have shown a willingness to expand the scope of the doctrine and, although the Company was not vicariously liable in this case, the decision is a timely reminder that employers can be held liable for the actions of their staff at work events. Had the assault taken place at the Christmas party, or had drinks at the hotel been a pre-planned extension of the Christmas party, the outcome could have been very different.
Nobody wants to be labelled a ‘Scrooge’ at Christmas but, by the same token, no-one wants to start the New Year facing an employment or civil claim. The difficulty lies in knowing what a judge in a particular case may decide to be “in the course of employment”. Employers should make it clear to employees that improper behaviour at work related functions, including violence and excessive drinking, is equally as unacceptable as improper behaviour in the workplace.