In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court has held that a company was not vicariously liable for the assault by its Managing Director on an employee, following the company’s Christmas party.
M was the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd (NR Ltd). In 2010 he recruited his friend, B. In 2011 the company Christmas party took place at a golf club. After the party, half of the guests, including M and B, went on to a hotel where some employees were staying. The majority of them carried on drinking. At around 2am the conversation turned to work-related matters. M began lecturing the employees about how he owned the company and made the decisions. When B challenged M in a non-aggressive manner, M swore at him and punched him twice. The second blow knocked B out, causing him to fall and sustain brain damage. B brought claims against NR Ltd on the basis that it was vicariously liable for M’s conduct.
The High Court rejected the claim. The assault was committed after a work social event and a line could be drawn between the party at the golf club and the impromptu drinks at the hotel. What happened after the party was in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy drinking session.
The Court seemed to view the nature of the interaction between the individuals, which was work-related, as being less important that the time and place of the incident, which was not work-related because it was unplanned drinks after the party. This sad case was very finely balanced and could have gone either way. Employers should exercise caution around social interactions outside work, particularly where large amounts of alcohol consumption is involved, as each case will turn on its facts.