When Christmas parties go wrong

21 November 2018

Is an employer liable for a drunken assault which happens after a work party has finished?

Sometimes, said the Court of Appeal in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment. Mr Major was Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment. He recruited his childhood friend, Mr Bellman. After a works Christmas party, both men were part of a group who continued drinking in a hotel. General conversation evolved into a discussion about work.

Mr Major became angry when his authority was challenged by Mr Bellman. He punched Mr Bellman twice. Mr Bellman fell onto a hard floor and sustained permanent brain damage. He sued the company, saying it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. The High Court said the drinking session was separate from the works party. There was insufficient connection between Mr Major's role as Managing Director and the assault. The company was not vicariously liable.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. They looked at the functions entrusted to Mr Major and asked if there was enough connection between that role and the assault. Mr Major's remit and authority in the business were very wide. The drinks were not an impromptu after work event. They occurred after an event organised by Mr Major and paid for by the business. At the time of the assault, Mr Major was wearing his 'MD hat' and lecturing his staff about work. The attack arose out of a misuse of his position as MD. There was enough connection between his role and the assault, and the business was vicariously liable for it.

The facts of this case are quite unusual. Employers will not usually be liable for work arguments between colleagues which lead to an assault. However, employers should ensure that managers and staff are properly trained to ensure that they behave professionally at work-related events.

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