Company not vicariously liable for violent assault

The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd* concerned a company Christmas party that went tragically wrong.  The Christmas party took place in 2011 at a golf club. All employees and their partners were invited and in total 24 people attended.  Following the party about half of the guests continued drinking at a hotel and the company paid the taxi fares for those who went on to the hotel.  At about 2.00 am the conversation turned to work matters and a disagreement ensued. The Managing Director lost his temper and when his sales manager challenged him he swore and punched him.  The Managing Director then punched him a second time, fracturing his employee’s skull and rendering him unconscious. Later medical reports confirmed severe brain damage and it was unlikely that the employee would ever work again.

The employee brought a claim for damages against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the Managing Director’s conduct.  If successful, the claim would be met by the company’s insurers.

The High Court held that the company was not vicariously liable for the violent assault by the employee on his colleague.  In making its decision, the Court had regard to:

  • the functions or field of activities that were entrusted to the employee
  • whether there was sufficient connection between the position in which he was employed and the wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable

In this case it was considered that the fact that the assault was committed after, not during, the work Christmas party was a factor that pointed away from vicarious liability.  The Court distinguished the Christmas party at the golf club and the spontaneous drinking session afterwards at the hotel.  It was not sufficient to be “in the course of employment” simply because a work topic had been raised.  The extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting the employee at risk of harm was also considered.  It was held that even assuming that the company paid for some or most of the eventual bill, any increased risk of confrontation arising from the additional alcohol at the hotel could not properly be treated as supporting a finding of vicarious liability. It was considered that the drinking session at the hotel was the voluntary choice of those present and was far removed from employment.

The Court found that the incident was not work related and that the company was not vicariously liable for the assault because it occurred at an unplanned post party drinking session rather than during the work Christmas party itself.  The decision is likely to be the subject of an appeal

*2017 IRLR 124