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Employer not liable for assault after Christmas party

Posted on 11th January 2017
Case law

A company was not liable for an assault by its Managing Director on an employee at an impromptu drinks following the company Christmas party.

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Julie Temple Julie
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that the assault took place after the conversation had turned from social to work matters did not ... turn what was social into work

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [High Court] 2016

The Facts

Mr Bellman was an employee of Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Mr Major was Managing Director of the company.

The company hosted a Christmas party at a golf club for its employees and partners. A number of other guests were also invited and attended with their partners. 24 people attended in total.

After the party ended between 13 and 15 people went on to a hotel. Some went to bed on arrival.  Five or six were employees of the company. Taxis were provided between the golf club and the hotel. It is believed that the company paid for these taxis. Alcohol had been provided at the Christmas party and continued to be provided (believed to be at the expense of the company) at the hotel.

On arrival at the hotel the conversation was of a social nature. After some time, the conversation turned to work and, following these discussions, Mr Major assaulted Mr Bellman, resulting in him being knocked to the floor, striking his head and suffering a "very severe traumatic brain injury".

Mr Bellman brought a claim against the company for the injuries suffered on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major.

The Decision

An employer is vicariously liable for the actions of an employee where they are in the ‘course or scope of employment’ and this involves consideration of the closeness of the connection between Mr Major and his responsibilities as an employee and the circumstances of the assault. 

The Judge concluded that Mr Major was not acting in the course of his employment and nor were the drinks at the hotel closely connected such that the company was liable for Mr Major’s actions.  The Judge took into account the following:

  • As Managing Director, Mr Major had overall charge of all aspects of the company's business. His remit was wide and he was the ‘directing mind and will’ of the company. One of the roles included motivation of employees which, in turn, included reward and benefits such as Christmas parties, provision of drinks and taxis. Despite the wide range of responsibilities, Mr Major was not always ‘on duty’.
  • There was an expectation that employees would attend the Christmas party and the party could, therefore, be considered an extension of work.
  • The assault on Mr Bellman took place after the Christmas party during an "impromptu drink". There was no obligation on employees or guests of the Christmas party to go on to the hotel and a number did not. Some went to bed.  The impromptu drinks at the hotel were not a seamless extension of the Christmas party and not an extension of work.
  • The fact that the assault took place after the conversation had turned from social to work matters did not, in the Judge's view, change this.  It did not turn what was by then a social incident into work. 

In Practice

The decision, in the circumstances, is quite surprising. 

The Judge was sympathetic to Mr Bellman as Mr Major and another employee had tried to portray the assault as self-defence when CCTV clearly showed it was not. Despite this the Judge concluded the company could not be held liable and many employers will welcome the decision in light of other cases, such as the recent Morrisons case, suggesting the net was widening.

The court placed emphasis on where and when the assault took place, concluding that this was not an extension of the Christmas party. Had the assault taken place at the Christmas party, it is very likely that the company would have been liable for the actions of its Managing Director, Mr Major. It is not yet known whether Mr Bellman will appeal.

Ask Quantrills for help

Whether you are unpicking the consequences of a Christmas party or some other incident between employees, Quantrills would be happy to help. We have helped many employers over the years to resolve the almost inevitable Christmas party fall out.  Get in touch by email or phone for a no obligation chat and to find out if we can help.

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