Employer’s Liability for Major Christmas Party Brawl

(by Nick Humphreys & assisted by Catriona Boyd)

On 1 December 2016, the High Court handed down a judgment in the case of Clive Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited. In this case it was decided by Judge Cotter QC that the employer could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of its director and shareholder in an alcohol fuelled post-Christmas Party punch up.

Mr Bellman was an employee of the Defendant and his attacker, a Mr John Major, was a director and shareholder of the employer. Following heavy drinking, and in the early hours of the morning, Mr Bellman ended up having a heated argument about the placement of another employee within the organisation. This resulted in Mr Major attacking Mr Bellman by punching him causing him to fall and hit his head on the marble floor in the hotel reception. This, in turn, caused Mr Bellman to suffer from brain damage. None of the facts of the assault were in question, and it was commented on in the judgment that there was a flawed decision made not to continue with criminal prosecution in this matter. The question for the High Court was whether the employer ought to be held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major in this scenario in order to provide Mr Bellman with a remedy.

As to when vicarious liability will apply to transfer liability from an employee to his/her employer for the employee’s wrongs, this is a matter which has evolved many times. From the 17th century, with the expansion of commerce and more organised trade, the approach was that an employer was responsible for the actions of their employees in negligence and other actions (such as fraudulent misrepresentation). From the 19th century, it was considered whether the test for vicarious liability was whether an employee could be said to be acting ‘within his authority’ and ‘in the course of his employment’.

The current form of test was initially articulated in Lister v Hedley Hall Ltd [2002] and has become known as the ‘close connection’ test. It focuses on whether the employee’s wrong is so closely connected with the employee’s employment that it would be just to hold the employer liable. This was restated and broken down in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc [2016], where it was stated that the court must consider the two following questions:

  1. Broadly speaking, what was the nature of the employee’s job?
  2. Was there a sufficient connection between the position in which he was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable under social justice principles?

Mr Bellman’s case was distinguished from the Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc case by the court drawing a distinction between the events at the Christmas Party and those at the impromptu “after-party”. Whereas, in the Morrison’s case the tortious act was viewed as part of an ‘unbroken sequence of events’ arising out of the employment, in Mr Bellman’s case it was found that there was a clear break between the organised Christmas party taking place in the golf club and the drinks that took place subsequently in the Hilton hotel, where the assault took place. The Court found that there was ‘not only a temporal but a substantive difference’ between the Christmas Party and the ‘impromptu drinks’ that followed and in this regard the employer could not be held liable for the wrongful act of Mr Major. Some weight was also given to the fact that the conversation topics at the ‘impromptu drinks’ were not about work related topics for large parts of time. Judge Cotter QC was reluctant to find that just because the events stemmed from a workplace related disagreement that the employer was automatically vicariously liable. The reasons given for this were, again, those of public policy in that to allow the claim to succeed in these circumstances would leave many businesses potentially uninsurable as potential liability would be too wide.

This judgment, and its difference from that of the Supreme Court in the Morrison’s case, serves to highlight the fact sensitive and unpredictable nature of this area of the law. It should also demonstrate to employers the care that ought to be taken when hosting events for staff to ensure that there is a clear finishing point, especially given the amounts of alcohol and associated silliness that often go hand in hand with the festive party season.

For further information or to discuss this this news item further, please contact Nick Humphreys whose details appear below.

This article is filed under:  Industry news, Publications

About the contributor

  • Nick Humphreys Partner

    Nick has acted for numerous multi-national, publically listed corporations as well as public and third sector clients. His clients include travel sector clients, industrial conglomerates, hotels, media organisations, marine businesses and charities

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