Bellman (a protected party by his litigation friend) v Northampton Recruitment Ltd  EWHC 3104 (QB)
The High Court considered the application of vicarious liability, the test to be applied and under what circumstances it may be appropriate for a defendant to be held liable under the principle of social justice.
In the early hours of 17 December 2011, Mr Major, a director and shareholder of the defendant company assaulted Mr Bellman, punching him twice and knocking him to the floor. As a result, Mr Bellman hit his head and suffered significant brain damage.
Earlier that night Mr Bellman and his partner had attended the work Christmas party at a golf club. The party had been organised by the defendant. Mr Major had been present at the golf club and high volumes of alcohol had been consumed during the course of the evening. After the party just over half of the guests went onto the Hilton hotel for further drinks but this was not a pre-planned extension to the work’s Christmas night out.
The assault happened at the Hilton hotel where Mr Major, who was drunk at the time, had summoned company employees in a heated rant about recruitment and deployment. Mr Bellman in a non-aggressive manner challenged the statement in respect of the deployment of a particular employee and in response Mr Major stated “I f****** make the decisions in this company, it’s my business. If I want him based in Northampton he will be f****** based there” and proceeded to assault Mr Bellman.
Mr Bellman pursued his claim against the defendant on the basis that they were vicariously liable for the act of assault carried out by Mr Major. Mr Bellman’s case was that the post event drinks was a seamless extension of the Christmas party. Also it was submitted that the discussion that had taken place was in relation to work topics and Mr Major trying to assert his authority, which was in the course of and closely connected to his employment.
The High Court considered the development of vicarious liability and the principles of social justice that underpin the modern doctrine of vicarious liability.
Judge Cotter QC focused on the case of Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets Plc  AC 677 in respect of the two questions to be considered when assessing whether an employer is vicariously liable for the wrongful acts committed by an employee.
1. What functions or “field of activities” were entrusted by the employer to the employee, i.e. what was essentially the nature of their job?
2. Whether there was sufficient connection between the position, in which the employee was employed, and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable under the principle of social justice.
In respect of the first question, it was concluded that Mr Major had a wide range of duties as the managing director and clearly saw himself as being in overall charge of all aspects of the defendant’s business, to include overseeing the running of the Christmas party. However, it could not be right that such a wide range and duration of duties would make Mr Major always on duty just because he was in the company of other employees.
In relation to the second question, the assault was committed after and not during the organised work Christmas party. The further drinking that went on at the Hilton hotel was not an extension of the organised work event and instead was a spontaneous post event drink. Also for a significant period of time the conversation between people had been about social topics and not about work.
Although the topic had switched to work at the time of the assault, the court held that this did not mean that it happened in the course of Mr Major’s employment, so there was not sufficient connection to make it right for the defendant to be held liable for what happened.
It was specifically concluded that the assault happened during an entirely independent, voluntary and discreet early hours drinking session which was very different to the organised Christmas party and was unconnected with the defendant’s business. The fact that a later discussion took place about work could not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the defendant.
As a result, Mr Bellman’s claim was unsuccessful although it was stated that there were grounds for criminal prosecution being bought against Mr Major for the assault.
What this means for you
The High Court took a common sense approach being wary of extending the situations where vicarious liability applied. In this case it was seen that it would be too wide reaching and unfair on employers if they were liable for events that took place in social situations outside of organised work events.
This case is positive because it shows that an employer will not be liable just because one employee assaults another and work was being discussed at the time. In this case, Mr Bellman was not at work at the time of the accident and was found to be at a social event that was not organised by the defendant.
It should be noted that if the assault had taken place at the Christmas party then the result would likely have been different because there would have been sufficient connection with Mr Major’s employment as the managing director, who had a role in the organisation and planning of the work Christmas party, and the assault which he carried out on Mr Bellman, that was linked to his position and was related to a work discussion.
It is recommended that employer’s actively take steps to mitigate the risk of violence in the workplace by reviewing their policies on the issue, ensuring that these policies are brought to the attention of all staff and, where there is violence, taking disciplinary action.
Also employer’s should take steps to ensure that all employees have sufficient training in relation to diversity, equal opportunities and anti-discrimination and that sufficient policies are in place in order to try and tackle the onset of any violence in the workplace and to avoid these types of potential claims.
Please contact Simon Jones, partner or Sophie Houghton, professional support lawyer for further information.