Keoghs Insight

Author

Hayley Riach

Vicarious Liability - festive assault threatens to blur boundaries further

AWARE05/02/2019
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Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

Retailers are well aware of the long established principle that vicarious liability can still apply, even if an employee’s wrongful conduct is outside the usual course of employment or working hours.  Recent case law has extended these principles, giving guidance as to when and in what circumstances it will apply.  In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal looked at vicarious liability arising from an assault on an employee following an office Christmas party. Have they extended the boundaries again?

The case

In the early hours of 17 December 2011, Mr Bellman, a sales manager employed by the defendant, was assaulted by the company’s managing director (MD), Mr Major, within the lobby of Northampton’s Hilton Hotel, after he questioned a managerial decision. Mr Bellman was punched twice, the second blow causing him to fall and hit his head on the marble floor. He suffered a fractured skull and irreversible brain damage.

He sought damages against the defendant on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. The matter was heard in the High Court in November 2016.

The decision

Mr Bellman’s claim failed at first instance. It was held that there was an insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and the assault for it to be appropriate for the defendant company to be held to account.

The appeal

However, the Court of Appeal then reversed this decision. It found that the managing director, who had arranged the company’s Christmas party and was viewed as its directing mind, had assaulted an employee in the course of a disagreement about work related issues when drinking after the party. This occurred in a hotel to which the MD had arranged taxis for a number of employees.

In making this decision, the Court of Appeal found that the MD’s remit and authority were wide. In lecturing the group on work matters, he had exercised his authority over the other employees. The assault was a misuse of that authority and, despite the time and place of the drinking session, the Court of Appeal was satisfied that there was a sufficient connection between his role and the assault to render the company vicariously liable.

Widening the gambit?

The Court of Appeal emphasised that the facts of this case were unusual and that liability will not arise just because an argument between colleagues about work related matters leads to an assault, even if one is considerably more senior than the other. The Court of Appeal was also keen to highlight that the circumstances of Mr Bellman’s case were a long way from, say, a social round of golf between colleagues during which the conversation turned
to work.

This was a unique decision in a claim where significant injuries were suffered, and it’s reasonable to suggest that a different approach may have been taken if the injuries had only been minor.
However, during any work party it is wise for retailers and employers in general to take sensible precautions, ensuring the chance of a potential altercation is minimised.