It is that time of year again and employees are getting ready for their Work Christmas parties. This is an opportunity for everyone to let their hair down and have fun. However, Employment Partner Paula Stuart writes that a recent case at the High Court , Bellman v Northampton Recruitment has provided a helpful reminder of the doctrine of vicarious liability and the extent of the employer’s responsibility outside of the workplace.
Vicarious liability is when someone is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. In the case of the employer, they can be held liable for the actions of its employees if the act was done in the course of their employment. The key question in these cases is whether the employee was acting in their personal capacity or in the course of the employment.
In the case of Bellman-v-Northampton Recruitment Limited (2016) the defendant was a small HGV driver recruitment company with 11 members of staff. Mr Bellman was the sales manager of the company. The company organised a Christmas party for all staff at a local golf club. At the end of the party, Mr Bellman was staying over at a local hotel and continued drinking in the hotel bar along with some other work colleagues. Mr Bellman was involved in a work related argument with another work colleague, which resulted in him being assaulted. He suffered a life changing brain injury as a result of the assault.
The issue to be considered by the High Court was whether the company was responsible for the actions of its employee, who committed the assault. The facts of the assault were not in dispute, the issue was whether the company was responsible for the employee’s actions. The issue to be considered by the court was whether the employee was “acting in the course of scope of his employment” when he committed the assault so as to make the company vicariously liable.
The judge was satisfied that the party at the golf club was a work event and, whilst not expressly stated, it appears clear that had the assault happened at the main party then it is likely that the company would have been vicariously liable. However, the judge made a clear distinction that this was after party drinks at the hotel that had not been organised by the company and therefore it was no longer a company event. Therefore, the judge held that the company was not responsible for the assault.
Whilst in this case the company was not responsible for the conduct of its employee it serves as a useful reminder to all employers that they are responsible for any improper behaviour at work events including the Christmas Party.