A word of warning before your Christmas party and any after party

04 December 2018

Author: Leanne McCleery
Practice Area: Employment Law

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The Court of Appeal has found a company vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director after he assaulted an employee following their Christmas party (Clive Bellman -v- Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] A Civ 2214).

The Employer held its Christmas party at a golf club and paid for alcohol and travel for its employees. Afterwards, the Managing Director (”MD”) of the Defendant company paid for taxis for several employees who wanted to go to the nearby hotel for further drinks. In the early hours an argument arose between the Claimant and the MD in relation to business matters and the appointment of a fellow employee. The MD assaulted the Claimant twice causing the Claimant to sustain traumatic brain damage.

The Claimant brought a claim against the employer, alleging that it was vicariously liable for the actions of the MD. At first instance, Judge Cotter QC dismissed the claim on the basis that the MD was not acting in the course of his employment when he assaulted the Claimant. In determining whether the employer was to be held liable under the principle of social justice, the essential issue for the Court to decide was whether there was a sufficient connection between the positon the MD was employed in and his wrongful conduct. Judge Cotter was of the view that the assault was committed at an impromptu drinks event and there was both a temporal and a substantive difference between the drinks at the hotel and the Christmas party; the drinks were not a seamless extension of the Christmas party. There was an insufficient connection between the assault and the position in which the MD was employed and his wrongful conduct to render the employer liable, and the claim was dismissed.

The Claimant appealed.

Overturning the first instance decision, on 11 October 2018, the Court of Appeal found that there was a sufficiently close connection between the actions of the MD and the employer’s business. When assessing the functions or fields of activities entrusted to the employee, the context, timing, location and circumstances were all relevant. The MD was the “directing mind and will” of the employer and his authority and remit were very wide. With regards the connection between the functions of the MD and his conduct, despite the time and place at which the assault occurred, the MD’s positon of seniority persisted and was a significant factor. The drinks party at the hotel occurred on the same evening as a work event paid for and organised by the MD. The MD asserted his authority and there was no personal background to his assault of the Claimant, hence establishing vicarious liability.

The boundaries of vicarious liability have been extended considerably in recent years, but as we approach the Christmas party season this serves as a reminder that the party, and indeed any follow on festivities, are deemed to be an extension of the workplace and any improper conduct or other unacceptable behaviour should not be tolerated. Furthermore, employees have a general duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their acts or omissions.

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