LEGAL CORNER: Employer not responsible for actions of MD at Christmas ‘After-party’

24th Feb 2017

Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees whilst they are acting in the course of their employment. A few months ago I reported on the case of Mohamud v WM Morrison[2016] AC 677 which considered whether Morrison’s was liable for the actions of its employee working on a petrol forecourt who assaulted a customer. In that case, they were.

The High Court this month considered the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104. Mr Bellman was employed by Northampton Recruitment as a Sales Manager in 2010. Their Managing Director was Mr Major. Mr Bellman and Mr Major had been friends since childhood. Towards the end of 2011, Mr Major appointed a Mr Kelly into a prominent position, which caused significant unhappiness within the rest of the team.

The Northampton Recruitment Christmas party took place in December 2011 at a golf club. It was paid for by the company and all staff along with their partners were invited. A significant quantity of alcohol was consumed. The party concluded around midnight and a number of attendees went home.

A group, including Mr Major and Mr Bellman, then went to the nearby Hilton Hotel, where they consumed yet more alcohol. After 2 am, the discussion moved towards work issues. Mr Bellman brought up the recent appointment of Mr Kelly, which angered Mr Major. He began to lecture those present about the fact that he owned the company and was entitled to make the decisions. Another employee then made comments supporting Mr Kelly, which Mr Bellman then challenged. Mr Major then moved towards Mr Bellman, swearing at him, and punched him. Mr Bellman fell down; he was bleeding from his eye. He got up, and held his hands up in a gesture of surrender and said, “What are you doing? Don’t do this.” Mr Major appeared to have lost all control by this point and although others tried to hold him back, he broke free, ran over to Mr Bellman and punched him so hard that the blow knocked Mr Bellman out and he fell, hitting his head on the marble floor. As a result, Mr Bellman suffered significant injury leaving him with permanent brain damage. He was unlikely to be able to work again.

Mr Bellman then brought a claim against Northampton Recruitment, arguing that they were vicariously liable for the actions of their Managing Director at what was described as an ‘extension’ of the work Christmas party, during a discussion about work matters.

The Judge, however, found that the claim was unsuccessful. He accepted that even a Managing Director could not be considered to be on duty solely because he was in the company of other employees, regardless of circumstances.

The Judge found that the move from the golf club to the hotel was not a ‘planned’ extension of the party, and was better described as ‘impromptu drinks’ after the Christmas party. There, those present engaged in discussions about a number of matters unrelated to work for some hours, before the discussion turned to work issues. There was not, in the Judge’s view, a sufficient causal connection between Mr Major’s role as an MD, and his actions towards Mr Bellman. The Judge also pointed out that if the mere fact of a discussion being between employees and about work were enough for liability to arise, it would mean that such a company’s potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable. That was not the position of the law at the present time.

This case is another reminder of the fact-sensitive nature of cases involving vicarious liability. There are not, and cannot be, hard and fast rules in this area. However, it is helpful for employers to be aware of the principles and also, the parameters to which this rule applies.

Safia Tharoo, Barrister, 42 Bedford Row, London

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