Vicarious liability: Director calls the shots, buys the shots and throws the punches

The High Court ruled in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd that an employer was not vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director who assaulted one of its employees following a work Christmas party, resulting in the employee being knocked unconscious and sustaining brain damage.

The assault took place after the Christmas party when around half the attendees remained drinking and continuing the festivities at a hotel not far from the Christmas party venue. The director in question had paid for the majority of the drinks on behalf of the employer, as well as the taxis that took the employees from the Christmas Party venue to the hotel.

Crucially, the High Court differentiated between the Christmas party, which was a work social event, and the ‘impromptu drink’ that followed at the hotel. The drink was held to be temporally and substantially different to the party and unconnected with the employer’s business.  The events that ensued after the party were so far removed from employment that the employer was not vicariously liable for the actions of its director.
 
Employers should note, however, that primary liability for the actions of company directors could arise in such circumstances because a director is the “human embodiment of a company” and therefore anything a director does in that capacity is treated as done by the company. Such an argument was not pursued in this particular case.

In any event, there is a fine line between the circumstances in which Courts and Tribunals have been prepared to attribute liability vicariously to an employer for the actions of its employees outside of work and the circumstances in which they find that an employee was not acting ‘in the course of employment’. 

Employers are therefore encouraged, this Christmas and throughout the year, to be clear with employees about the conduct expected of them at social events, for example, by issuing a code of conduct and/or reminders prior to social events.  Employers should also take steps to dissociate any post-company event gatherings from the company event itself.

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Kerry Garcia

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