Motor Matters - ‘Tis the season to be... vicariously liable?

13 November 2018

As Christmas party season approaches, a recent Court of Appeal decision has provided a sober warning for employers about the risks associated with excessive drinking by employees at, or following, social events. 

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2018] EWCA Civ 2214

What happened?

The company’s Christmas party, which passed without incident, took place at a golf club in December 2011. Following the party, a number of the guests went back to their hotel and continued drinking. This was not a planned extension of the party, but the company paid for the taxi fares and most of the drinks. The conversation turned to work matters, at which point the managing director of the company, ‘M’, lost his temper. An employee, ‘B’, challenged M in a non-aggressive manner. In response, M punched him twice, knocking him out and causing him to sustain a serious brain injury. B sought damages for his personal injury from the company, claiming that it was vicariously liable for M’s conduct.

Who was liable?

The High Court dismissed B’s claim. It held that M, despite having a wide remit to act on the company’s behalf as its managing director, was not ‘on duty’ at the time of the assault. It occurred after, not during, a work social event. The judge was satisfied that a line could be drawn between the Christmas party and the impromptu gathering at the hotel afterwards at which those present had chosen to engage in a heavy drinking session. The fact that the assault occurred in the context of a discussion about work did not mean that it occurred ‘in the course of employment’. The company was not liable for M’s actions.

B successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal, which found the company vicariously liable for M’s actions. In the context of the post-party drinking session, at which the conversation had turned to working matters, M had purported to exert his managerial authority over the staff present. Just because the drinking session was voluntary and unscheduled, it did not follow that M was not acting in his capacity as managing director. There was a sufficient connection between M’s duties and the assault to render the company vicariously liable for B’s injuries.

What are the consequences of this decision?

HR professionals are well aware of the risks associated with unruly behaviour taking place at work Christmas parties and other social events. This case serves to provide a warning that courts will adopt a wide interpretation of what amounts to ‘in the course of employment’ for the purposes of establishing vicarious liability, even beyond the boundaries of an official work event. However, the Court of Appeal’s judgment also makes it clear that the facts of this case are unusual and that this combination of circumstances will arise rarely in practice. An assault sustained by an employee, inflicted by a colleague outside the context of an official work event, will not automatically result in the company’s vicarious liability. The distinctive feature in this case was the express assertion of authority by the company’s most senior figure during an impromptu drinking session. However, at a time of year when over-indulgence is prevalent, employers should be mindful of the potential risks. 

For further information please contact Jennifer Leeder or another member of Birketts' Employment Team.

This article is from the winter 2018 issue of Motor Matters, our newsletter for those working within the motor industry. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website. Law covered as at November 2018.

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