A CHRISTMAS TALE
10th December 2018
As we are well into the Festive Season, I thought readers would be interested in the decision of the Court of Appeal in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited. This case will dispel the myth that employers are not responsible for the consequences of the actions of their employees at a Christmas party or indeed an impromptu after-party.
Mr Bellman was a sales manager for Northampton Recruitment and Mr Major was the Company’s Managing Director. On 16th December 2011, Northampton Recruitment held a Christmas party for its office staff and their partners at a local golf club. Mr Major had seen it as part of his role to oversee the smooth running of the party and as such he was not just an attendee. Northampton Recruitment paid for the food and drink and for taxis and accommodation for most of the guests at a nearby hotel. At around midnight, the attendees retired to the hotel for further drinks and at around 2.00 a.m. the conversation turned to work, including Northampton Recruitment’s plans for the coming year. The conversation developed into a discussion about a particular employee who was understood to be paid substantially more than everyone else. Mr Major became annoyed and summoned the remaining Company employees to an early morning lecture at which he told them how he owned the Company and that he was in charge and that he would do what he wanted to do. Mr Major was significantly inebriated, in the words of the Judge, and whilst issuing a number of expletives, he punched Mr Bellman who fell to the ground sustaining a fractured skull and other serious injuries which left him with traumatic brain damage.
The Court was asked to decide whether the Company was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. The Judge at first instance held that it was not, but the Court of Appeal disagreed. It held that Mr Major’s position of seniority persisted and was a significant factor. He was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to assert his authority over the staff who were present and to re-assert that authority when he thought it necessary. It was the decision of the Court that two key factors needed to be considered. The first was the nature of Mr Major’s job which had to be construed broadly and objectively and the second was whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct, to render vicarious liability appropriate. Mr Major owned the Company, was its most senior employee and directing mind and had full control over how he conducted his role. When he lectured the staff at the after-party he was wearing his metaphorical managing director’s hat and established his authority in that role. In addition, the party was not a purely social event, happening to involve colleagues but a follow on from an organised work event, attended by most of the Company’s employees where the Company had paid for taxis and drinks. In those circumstances there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role and accordingly the Company was vicariously liable for his actions and therefore in damages to Mr Bellman.
As always, these cases are fact-sensitive and do not establish a general principle that an employer will be liable for anything that happens at an office party or after-party. Conversely, however, it clearly indicates that wrongful acts on the part of employees as such events can rebound upon an employer.
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