HM Insights

Why employers must beware of the ghosts of Christmas parties past

As Christmas approaches, so does the work Christmas party season. In keeping with the tradition of employment lawyers, here is a tale of festive woe originating from a Christmas party – the Court of Appeal decision in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.

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The facts of the case

Mr Bellman was an employee of Northampton Recruitment Limited (NRL), and was also a personal friend of the managing director of NRL, John Major (a namesake of, rather than the, former Prime Minister).

NRL is a relatively small company, and all members of staff and their partners were invited to the Christmas Party which was held at a golf club. Twenty four people attended and, at first, a pleasant evening was had by all. Indeed, the night was going so well that 13 of the 24 went on to a Hilton hotel to continue the carousing after the party had finished.

This was not part of the official company party or a pre-planned extension to the party, and it was here that matters took a darker turn.

At around 3am, the conversation turned (in hindsight, unwisely) to company politics. Mr Major felt that Mr Bellman was challenging his authority and decision-making within the company. This caused Mr Major considerable anger and he repeatedly punched Mr Bellman, despite attempts being made by other members of staff to hold him back.

Mr Bellman was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe brain injury, to the extent that he is unlikely to be able to work again. The claim at first instance was raised for personal injury against NRL on the basis of vicarious liability, alleging that NRL should be liable for the actions of Mr Major.

HHJ Cotter QC dismissed the claim on the basis that what had occurred was a drunken discussion after “a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a work event had ended”. The fact that the conversation had turned to work before the assault could not provide sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability.

The Appeal

The grounds of the appeal were that the judge had not taken account of the nature of Major’s job and was wrong to hold that there was not a sufficient connection between the position in which he was employed and his conduct.

In reaching its decision the Court of Appeal applied the “sufficient connection” test whereby it had to make an evaluative judgement in resolving a question of law based the on the trial judge’s own findings of fact.

In allowing the appeal, it was found there was a connection between the functions of Major’s job and his conduct. The Court of Appeal therefore overruled Judge Cotter QC and found there was sufficiency of connection. Asplin LJ found that even if Mr Major had taken off his managerial hat when he first arrived at the hotel, “he chose to don it once more and to re-engage his wide remit as managing director and to misuse his position when his managerial decisions were challenged. … He was purporting to exercise managerial control over the employees. … There is no suggestion … that Mr Major’s behaviour arose as a result of something personal.”

Asplin LJ concluded Mr Major’s position of seniority persisted and was a significant factor despite the time and place in which the assault occurred. Major was in a dominant position and had a supervisory role which enabled him to assert his authority over the staff who were present and re-assert that authority when he thought it necessary.

Therefore, as a matter of law, and having conducted an evaluative judgement based on the primary facts found “there was sufficient connection between Mr Major’s field of activities and the assault to render it just that the company should be vicariously liable for his actions.”

Comment

The Court of Appeal was quick to point out that the combination of circumstances in this case would arise very rarely. Consequently this case would not be authority for the proposition that employers become insurers for any violent actions of their employees. Therefore an employer’s liability would not arise simply because of an argument about work related matters between colleagues with different levels of seniority.

The Court of Appeal held the key factors which merited imposing liability on the employer were the breadth of the offending employee’s authority, his entitlement to exercise his authority and his conduct in asserting his authority. These were the critical factors for the success of the appeal.

Despite this appeal decision being allowed based on its own particular facts, this decision should encourage employers to be mindful of the potential risks posed by organised social events for employees and employee conduct at these events.

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