Employment Case Note: Bellman V Northampton Recruitment Ltd
By Nick Humphreys & Jess Greenheld
With the Christmas party season almost upon us, employers may wish to take note of the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWCA Civ 2214, which held an employer vicariously liable for assault committed by its managing director at an after-party.
Northampton Recruitment Limited (“NR”) held a staff Christmas party at Collingtree Park Golf Club in December 2011. As the party was drawing to a close, NR’s managing director, Mr Major, spontaneously invited employees for further drinks at the nearby Hilton Hotel. A number of the attendees were staying at the hotel and took Mr Major up on his offer.
After arriving, the group settled in the lobby and continued drinking. Conversation then turned to NR’s business and, in particular, a new employee who was understood to be receiving substantially higher pay than the others. Mr Major quickly became agitated at this topic, summoned the remaining employees and began lecturing them about his managerial authority. Mr Bellman, a sales manager, then said something to which Mr Major disagreed, causing Mr Major to punch Mr Bellman twice. Mr Bellman fell and hit his head on the ground during the assault. He suffered traumatic brain damage and permanent impairment as a result.
High Court decision
Proceedings were brought in the High Court against NR on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. At first instance, the High Court concluded that there was an insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and the assault to make it right for NR to be held vicariously liable. This was because the spontaneous drinks at the hotel were, in the Court’s view, of a different nature to the Christmas party, due to both temporal difference and the fact there was no expectation that employees attend. As such, the drinks could not be seen as a seamless extension of an organised work social event and the attendees were to be viewed more like hotel guests rather than employees.
Hearing Bellman’s appeal, the Court of Appeal adopted the two-step approach outlined by the Supreme Court decision in Mohamud v W M Morrison Supermarkets PLC to determine whether NR could be held vicariously liable. First, the Court undertook a broad overview of the functions or field of activities which had been entrusted to Mr Major by NR. The relevant question in this regard was “what was the nature of the job?”, rather than “what was the employee expressly authorised to do?”. Under this head, the Court of Appeal noted that Mr Major’s functions were very widely drawn. As the directing mind and will of NR, Mr Major was in overall charge of all aspects of NR’s business.
However, whether this translated to him acting as the managing director of NR when the assault took place, such that vicarious liability could be attributed, depended on the second head of the Mohamud test. This was whether there is a sufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for NR to be held liable under the principle of social justice.
In the Court of Appeal’s view, there was such connection. In particular, the Court of Appeal noted that Mr Major was clearly seeking to exercise authority over his subordinate employees, given he was lecturing them about the nature and extent of that authority. This was entirely different to a discussion leading to an altercation between ‘guests’, as the High Court had determined.
While the unscheduled drinking session at the hotel could not be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party, given the venue had changed, there was a temporal gap between the party and the drinks, and attendance at the drinking session was voluntary, Mr Major’s presence at the drinking session needed to be viewed in the context of the evening’s events. It could not be said that the drinks were an impromptu get together which might happen any night of the week after work. Rather, they occurred on the same evening as a work event which had been paid for and orchestrated by Mr Major on behalf of NR. Even if Mr Major had taken off his managerial hat when he first arrived at the hotel, the Court of Appeal considered that he chose to don it once again when his managerial decisions were challenged. This was demonstrated when he summoned his staff to expound the extent and scope of his authority.
On this basis, the Court of Appeal considered it was appropriate to hold NR vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. However, it was noted in Irwin LJ’s judgment that this was an exceptional case, given Mr Major’s field of activity was almost unrestricted in relation to the affairs of NR and exercised at almost any time. Crucial to the determination was the fact that the discussions about work became an exercise in ‘laying down the law’ by Mr Major. This was something he was entitled to do if he so chose, however unwise, vehement or crude its expression may have been.
This decision confirms that employers may be found liable for their employees’ actions, even if those actions take place after hours, provided a sufficient link can be established with the employees’ employment. That said, Irwin LJ’s judgment indicates that it will take exceptional circumstances for vicarious liability to be imposed in cases where the employee’s actions were far removed from the workplace, as they were in Bellman.
Key to the Court of Appeal’s decision was the extremely wide breath of Mr Major’s field of duty and the close link between his actions and the exercise of his managerial authority. Had the assault taken place as a result of something other than Mr Major’s assertion of his own authority, even in the context of work discussions, NR may not have been held liable, due to the temporal and substantial difference between NR’s Christmas party and the Hilton drinking session.