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Company held not liable for director’s assault following Christmas party

In the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the High Court held that a business was not vicariously liable for an assault by one of its directors on an employee that took place after the work’s Christmas party.

The assault had been provoked by a heated discussion about a work-related issue, in a hotel bar after the party. The High Court were satisfied that the ‘impromptu drinks’ did not take place in the course of employment and therefore the business was not vicariously liable.

M was managing director of the business and in 2010 he recruited B, who was a friend. Following the Christmas party in 2011 some of the staff went on for ‘impromptu’ drinks at a hotel bar. The conversation at the hotel bar had initially been on social topics but at around 2:00 am it turned to work matters. A contentious issue arose and M began to lecture the employees present on how he owned the company and made the decisions. When B challenged him (in a non-aggressive manner), M punched him twice. The second blow knocked B unconscious and he fell to the floor and sustained brain damage. B brought a claim for damages against his employer on the basis that it was vicariously liable for M’s conduct.

When making its decision, the High Court took in to account that fact that M was authorised to act on behalf of the company. M was also able to make decisions about expenditure and it had been his decision that drinks, taxis, accommodation and the party had been paid for by the company. The High Court did not however accept that M should always be considered to be ‘on duty’ because he was in the company of other employees.

In addition, the fact that the assault had taken place in the context of a discussion about work had only a limited effect on the question of liability. It was held that merely raising a work-related issue cannot have the effect of changing an interaction between to colleagues in to something that was ‘in the course of employment’.

The High Court also felt that it was relevant to consider the extent to which the employment relationship was responsible for putting B at risk of injury. It was held that what followed the Christmas party was entered in to in the context of voluntary choice and therefore the business could not be held vicariously liable for what took place at the hotel.