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When the Christmas office party leads to a punch-up

Christmas party season is upon us. While there may be plenty of reasons to be jolly, a recent court ruling serves up a sobering reminder of how badly things can go wrong when excessive drinking comes into the party mix.

The Court of Appeal has ruled that a recruitment company was vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director who punched the sales manager at a post-Christmas party gathering, causing life-changing brain injuries.

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, it overturned a judgment and held the business liable even though the assault had taken place at a voluntary get-together hours after the original party ended.

Appeal Court Judge Lady Justice Asplin said the managing director, John Major, had been wearing his ‘metaphorical managing director’s hat’ when he assaulted sales manager Mr Bellman. In short, he had abused his managerial power with tragic consequences.

What happened?

Northampton Recruitment Ltd held a Christmas party for its 11 members of staff and their partners at Collingtree Golf Club in December 2011.

Afterwards, some of the partygoers moved to the nearby Hilton Hotel for more drinks where, in the early hours of the morning, Mr Major began lecturing his employees about his authority and role in the company and a heated discussion ensued.

When Mr Bellman criticised a personnel decision he had made, Mr Major reacted violently, punching him twice in the face causing him to fall ‘straight back like a falling tree’ hitting his head on the marble floor and fracturing his skull.

Court action

Initially, when Mr Bellman tried to sue his employer he was unsuccessful, with the High Court ruling that it could not be blamed for Mr Major’s actions.

Mr Bellman successfully challenged this in the Court of Appeal with judges agreeing that the company was indeed vicariously liable for its managing director’s violent assault.

Lady Justice Asplin said that the drinking session at the hotel was ‘a very long way from being a social round of golf between colleagues’.

“It seems to me that Northampton Recruitment’s employees who took part in the drinking session can have been in no doubt at that stage that Mr Major was purporting to exercise managerial control over them,” she said.

As a result of the attack, it is considered unlikely that Mr Bellman will ever be able to return to paid employment. He is thought to be seeking more than £1 million in damages.

Implications

The decision is a timely reminder to employers that there is a possibility they could be held vicariously liable for the wrongful actions of an employee even when they occur outside an official work event.

If there is a sufficient connection between an assailant’s job and the assault for his or her actions to be considered as ‘in the course of employment’, the employer may well be vicariously liable for what happened.

With this is mind, managers might be wise to keep workplace tensions out of the social arena – ensuring peace and goodwill to all staff.

For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Business Employment team.

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