For any unfortunate employers starting the New Year with disciplinary procedures to deal with following Christmas parties, the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd will be of interest. Employment Associate Nuala Murphy explores the case.
In this case, a group of employees decided to continue an after party at a hotel bar after the official Christmas party had ended. The company paid for taxis and was expected to pay for some, if not all, of the drinks.
In the early hours of the morning, a heated discussion took place between the Managing Director John Major and an employee, Sales Manager Clive Bellman (the Claimant), regarding a work matter. Mr Major felt his authority was being challenged and told those present that he owned the company and made the decisions. He proceeded to punch Mr Bellman twice causing him to hit his head on the marble floor. As a result, Mr Bellman suffered serious injuries and is unlikely to be able to return to paid employment.
Mr Bellman brought High Court action seeking damages from the company (the Defendant) on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. The legal question for the High Court to address was whether the Defendant as the employer was vicariously liable for the assault committed by Mr Major. The test is whether the actions were so closely connected with the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable.
The High Court found that a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu drinks’ which took place later. The assault was committed after and not during a work event. Consequently, the after party and the assault did not occur in the course of the employment and the company could not be held liable for what took place.
The High Court took into account the separate location at which the drinks took place, that there was a variety of guests – not just employees – and that there had been discussion for a significant period of time about non-work related matters.
What this case shows is that incidents that occur at social gatherings, which arise in the context of entirely voluntary and personal individual choices, such as taking part in late night ‘impromptu drinks’, may not be the responsibility of the employer. The drinking session was of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant’s business. There was therefore insufficient connection to make it right for the Defendant to be held liable.
However, whilst this case illustrates that an employer may not always be liable for personal injury caused by such an assault, we would always advise employers to deal with such conduct as a serious disciplinary matter. It is also important to bear in mind that in other cases it has been held that an employer was liable for discriminatory harassment carried out by employees at similar after work drinks.
For more information, please contact:
Nuala Murphy, Associate, Employment