Background

Christmas has been and gone and most of us are glad to put all that partying and overeating behind us. However, this was not possible for one employer whose Christmas party in 2011 resulted in a fracas in which an employee tragically suffered lifelong brain injuries. A seven year legal battle then ensued.

office staff around the christmas tree

After Northampton Recruitment Ltd’s Christmas party in 2011, a group of employees, including the Managing Director (MD), went off to a separate venue for further drinks until the early hours of the following morning.
At this drinking session, the MD lectured his employees about his authority and role within the company. One employee, Mr Bellman, criticised a personnel decision the MD had made. The MD responded by punching Mr Bellman twice in the face. This caused Mr Bellman to fall and strike his head on the floor, suffering a fractured skull and permanent brain injuries.

Mr Bellman claimed compensation for his injuries and the ensuing legal battle resulted in the recent Court of Appeal decision in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.

Legal Question

The question which the Court of Appeal had to answer was whether Northampton Recruitment Ltd should be held vicariously liable for the actions of its Managing Director.

In cases of alleged vicarious liability, the test the Court will apply is whether there is a sufficiently close connection between the wrongdoer’s employment and the act or omission in question. Whether an employee has specific authority for a particular act is not necessarily important; it is highly unlikely that any employer would authorise an employee to assault another person, for example.

Lady Justice Asplin found that, in the circumstances of the Bellman case, the drinking session after the main office party was ‘a very long way from being a social round of golf between colleagues… [The] employees who took part in the drinking session can have been in no doubt at that stage that [the MD] was purporting to exercise managerial control over them.’ The MD had been wearing his ‘metaphorical managing director’s hat’ when he assaulted Mr Bellman, she said.

The Court of Appeal found that Northampton Recruitment Ltd was vicariously liable for the assault.

The Right Decision?

In my opinion, the Court of Appeal decision in Bellman was absolutely correct. The incident may have not happened at the formal Christmas party, but there can have been no doubt that the company hierarchy was still very much in evidence when the social gathering continued elsewhere. The MD was exerting his authority by striking Mr Bellman, albeit in a way which was entirely wrong.

So, What Does the Bellman Case Mean for Employers?

Firstly, don’t punch your staff!

Secondly, all employers should understand that they may be held vicariously liable for the wrongful actions or negligence of an employee, even if the incident occurs outside of work or a formal work event. Senior Managers and Directors should take particular care given their position of responsibility for the operation of the company and their authority over others.

Employers needing advice on this area of law should contact Wards Solicitors’ Business Employment team.
Employees affected by this or similar issues should contact Richard Green, part of Wards Solicitors’ Accident and Injury team.

Richard Green, Solicitor,

Wards Solicitors’ Accident and Injury team

richard green wards solicitors