In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, a company was not vicariously liable when one of its directors punched an employee at drinks following the company Christmas party. The decision centred on whether the assault had taken place “in the course of employment” and a distinction was drawn between the company Christmas party and the ‘impromptu drinks’ that followed.
This case concerned a small recruitment company based in Northampton. The company’s Christmas party had been arranged for all staff and their partners at a golf club. The party passed without incident. After the party, a group took taxis, to a hotel where some of them were staying. Most of the group continued drinking alcohol and socialising at the hotel. In the early hours of the morning, conversation turned to work and an argument broke out between the director and a sales manager, Mr Bellman. This led to the director punching Mr Bellman twice and causing brain damage.
Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages against the company, suggesting that it was vicariously liable for the director’s actions.
The High Court noted that the director in question had the authority to act on the company’s behalf, liked things done “his way” and viewed the motivation of staff as part of the remit of his job. It was also noted that the company had paid for the Christmas party and the taxis, hotel accommodation and drinks. However, the High Court rejected Mr Bellman’s claim. The company was held not to be vicariously liable.
The judge made a distinction between the Christmas party and the drinks at the hotel; the latter was not a seamless extension of the former. The party had been organised by the company, the director had effectively hosted the party and it was a work event which employees were expected to attend. In contrast, the drinks at the hotel were not a company event and the director was no longer acting as a host in the course of his employment. Furthermore, it was held that merely discussing work matters could not transform a recreational activity into one carried out in the course of employment.
The judge concluded that the hotel drinks were ‘an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant’s business.’
Alex Payton comments: “This should serve as a timely warning to employers of the unpredictability of vicarious liability. Had the facts been slightly different here, such as the assault taking place at the Christmas party, the decision could have been very different”.
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