An employer may be found to be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees if the employee in question is acting in the course of his employment. An area of concern for employers, particularly during the festive season, is the after work social events and whether the potential “after parties” would be considered to be in the course of employment. What amounts to acting in the course of his employment can be difficult to determine and depends heavily on the facts of the particular case. The body of existing case law has demonstrated that an employer may not be liable for the actions of its employee merely because they occurred during working hours, but equally it may not be free from liability simply because the act occurred outside of normal working hours or the workplace. On 1 December 2016, in case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court delivered its Judgment on one such scenario.

Northampton Recruitment Ltd is a small HGV driver recruitment company. Mr Major was the Managing Director and he, along with his wife and another director were shareholders in the Company. Mr Bellman, who was an old school friend of Mr Major, was employed as a sales manager. The Company organised a Christmas party to which employees and their partners were invited. The party took place at a golf club and passed without incident.

Following the party around half the guests moved on to a hotel where a number of guests were staying, their accommodation having been paid for by the Company. The group, which included employees and non-employees, continued drinking and at least some of the drinks were paid for by the Company. The conversation revolved around social topics until the early hours of the morning when the conversation turned to a sensitive work issue concerning the recruitment of a new member of staff. In response to this Mr Major lectured those present on how he owned the Company and that he was in charge. He subsequently punched Mr Bellman twice, the second punch causing him to fall and hit his head on the marble floor. As a result of the attack Mr Bellman suffered a life changing brain injury.

It was not disputed that Mr Major had assaulted Mr Bellman. The question in dispute was whether the Company should be vicariously liable for the attack. The Court considered whether the actions of Mr Major were in the course of his employment, applying the established test of whether there was sufficient closeness between Mr Major’s duties as an employee of the Company and his wrongdoing to make it right for the Company to be held liable for his actions.

Firstly considering Mr Major’s duties as an employee, the Court accepted that as Managing Director he had a wide remit to act on the Company’s behalf and that things were done “his way”. Mr Major saw himself as in overall charge of all aspects of the Company and that it was likely that for most of the week he was working for the Company or available to the Company which was a 24/7 business. However, the Court did not accept that it could be the case that Mr Major should be regarded as always “on duty” regardless of the circumstances.

In respect of the Christmas party itself, the Court found that there was an expectation that employees would attend the party and it was therefore closely connected to the employment. However it concluded that the drinks at the hotel afterwards were not similarly connected, despite the fact that the Company paid for the taxis to the hotel (the Company would have paid for taxis home in any event) and met at least part if not the majority of the bar bill. The after party at the hotel was found to be an impromptu drink which the Court concluded could not be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party. Entirely voluntary and personal choices were made by those present to engage in a heavy early hours drinking session. The Court concluded that, even assuming that the Company paid or was expected to pay for most of the alcohol consumed, it did not properly support a finding of vicarious liability because it was too far removed from employment. Accordingly the company was found not to be vicariously liable for the serious assault by Mr Major on Mr Bellman.

While this case is a useful example of how a clear line may be drawn between organised work events which are connected to employment and after event activities which can be said to be purely voluntary social activity, the Court acknowledged that each case would turn on its own facts and the boundaries of vicarious liability can still prove difficult to identify. Employers would therefore still be best advised to be clear about the behaviour that is expected of employees at work related social events. Employers should consider how they can mitigate the risks of bad behaviour, such as limiting alcohol consumption, and if things do go wrong ensuring that the employee issues are dealt with in a firm and consistent way.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this article, please contact Victoria Cook, Senior Associate in the Employment department

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Victoria Cook

Senior Associate

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Posted on 09/12/2016 in Legal Updates

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