In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited (NRL), the Court of Appeal decided that NRL was liable for its Managing Director drunkenly assaulting another employee at an "impromptu" drinks event after a work Christmas party. There was a sufficient connection between the Managing Director's employment and the assault. This is an important case for employers to be aware of in the run-up to the Christmas party season.
Mr Bellman was a Sales Manager at NRL. After the NRL Christmas party, he and a number of colleagues went to a hotel bar for an "impromptu" drink. At the hotel, the employees discussed a work matter. The Managing Director lost his temper and told the employees that it was he who owned the company and made the decisions. Mr Bellman verbally challenged the Managing Director, who punched him twice. As a result of this, Mr Bellman suffered severe brain damage.
Mr Bellman sued NRL for damages, on the basis that NRL was vicariously liable for the assault.
The High Court dismissed Mr Bellman's claim, holding that the Managing Director was not acting in the course of his employment when he assaulted Mr Bellman. The drinks were impromptu and each employee had a personal choice as to whether or not to attend. The fact that work topics were discussed at the drinks did not mean that there was a sufficient connection between the Managing Director's employment and his wrongful conduct in assaulting Mr Bellman.
The Court of Appeal overruled the High Court's decision, finding that there was a sufficient connection. The Court of Appeal noted that it was important to look at the level of authority of the Managing Director – in this case it was very wide, as he had no set working hours, he controlled the way he worked and he made all management decisions. In the Court of Appeal's view, at the hotel he had exerted his authority over the employees when telling them that he made the decisions in relation to NRL.
The outcome of this case turned on its (very specific) facts. The "close connection" test for vicarious liability gives the courts a broad discretion and employers should be aware that they will not always be vicariously liable for the conduct of employees in arguments outside the workplace that relate to work matters. The key differentiating factor in this instance was that the Managing Director had a significant amount of management responsibility and authority which he exerted over the employees at the after party.
As we approach the Christmas party period, employers should remind their employees (and in particular, senior management) about behaving appropriately. This can include communicating with employees about what is expected of them at office parties as well as the policy for coming into work the following day. This will assist in reducing the potential risks that employers face in the festive season.
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