Can an employer be liable for injury caused at an impromptu work after party?

Summary

Vicarious Liability arises where one party (whether that is a Company, organisation or an individual person) is responsible for the negligent actions of another. In an employment context an employer will be liable for actions “in the course of employment”. The Court of Appeal has taken the view that this is to be viewed broadly and in a recent case a Managing Director’s drunken assault on an employee at an unscheduled after work drinking session has made the Company also liable. Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214.

Facts

After the Company Christmas party, half of the guests went, via a taxi paid for by the Company, for drinks at a hotel where some were staying. This was not a planned extension of the party. The majority of the group continued to drink alcohol and it was expected that the Company would pay for at least some of the drinks. A controversial issue was raised at 2am, the Managing Director (Mr Major) lost his temper and lectured the employees how he owned the Company and made the decisions. He was challenged by an employee (Mr Bellman) in a non-aggressive manner and in reaction punched the employee twice causing Mr Bellman severe brain damage. It is unlikely he will work again, so he brought a claim for damages against the Company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the conduct of the Managing Director.

Outcome

Mr Bellman was successful in his claim that the Company was liable for the conduct of the Managing Director. Firstly, the court looked broadly at the field of activities assigned to an employee, looking objectively and taking in to account their position within the Company. It was agreed that Mr Major had responsibility for all management decisions. His authority and remit were very wide and in cases where vicarious liability for injury exists necessarily involve an employee who has used or misused their position in a way to injure a third party.

Secondly, the Court then considered whether there was sufficient connection between the job and the wrongdoing. It was agreed that the unscheduled drinking session was not a seamless extension of the Christmas party, however, it was not an impromptu drinks as it occurred the same evening paid for and orchestrated by the managing director. Mr Major chose to wear his “metaphorical managing director’s hat” and delivered a lecture to his subordinates. His seniority was a significant factor, as he was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to re-assert that authority when he thought it necessary. The Court held that taking these factors in to account that there was significant connection between the job and the assault to render the Company vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions.

Implications for Employers

Employers should note that liability will not just arise when there is an argument about work matters between colleagues. When summing up Lord Justice Irwin agreed with the judgment but with reservations. He highlighted that this case is unusual as Mr Major’s role was almost unrestricted in relation to the Company’s affairs and the discussions about work became “an exercise in laying down the law.” There is always unpredictability in vicarious liability cases and the outcome is usually heavily dependent on the facts. This case does highlight that Courts are now adopting a broader application of the ‘close connection’ test to incidents of assault by an employee.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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