• Rose and Rose Solicitors

Employer not liable for post party Christmas assault

Employers can be found vicariously liable for the actions of their staff, but only if these occur in the course of their employment. Whilst an employer can, in some circumstances, be held legally responsible for an injury to a worker sustained during an office function, the High Court has ruled that a recruitment company was not liable for serious injuries inflicted by one member of staff on another some hours after a planned Christmas event had finished (Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited).

Clive Bellman worked as the sales manager for Northampton Recruitment Limited. He sought £1 million in damages from his employer after he suffered a fractured skull and very severe traumatic brain injury as a result of being punched in the face by John Major, the managing director of the company. The incident took place after the work Christmas party at a golf club had passed without event and staff members had adjourned to the bar of the nearby Hilton Hotel. This was not a pre-planned extension to the party.

For some time the conversation was on social and sporting topics, but later turned to work matters.At around 3:00am, Mr Major became angry with Mr Bellman after he questioned one of his management decisions. He twice punched him hard in the face and Mr Bellman fell, hitting his head on the marble floor. His head injuries were so serious that he is unlikely to return to any paid employment and lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs.

Lawyers acting for Mr Bellman claimed that Northampton Recruitment was vicariously liable for Mr Major's actions and the consequences of the attack because he was acting 'in the course or scope of his employment'. The High Court disagreed, however. In its view, what took place at the hotel was a drunken discussion that resulted from a personal choice to consume more alcohol long after the works event had ended. The fact that the dispute was about work did not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company that employed the two men.

They had gone to the hotel for an impromptu drink, which by the time Mr Major delivered the punches had become an entirely independent and voluntary early hours drinking session, which the Court described as 'a frolic' of their own. It was of a very different nature from the Christmas party and was unconnected with Northampton Recruitment's business.

The judge went on to say that to hold that the fact that work-related matters were discussed at the hotel provided a foundation for liability would render such social events potentially uninsurable.

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