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Vicarious Liability at Christmas Parties
Following the Company’s Christmas party, which took place at a Golf Club in Northamptonshire, a group of employees carried out a private drinking session in the hotel lobby at a Hotel in Watering Lane. During this session, a Director and Shareholder of the Company, Mr John Major assaulted a Manager, Mr Bellman. The question was whether or not the Company were vicariously liable for the actions of the Mr Major, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment.
Prior to the incident, the employees participated in a Christmas event put on by the Company at the Golf Club. After the event concluded, almost half of the guests went to another Hotel to carry on the celebrations.
At approximately 3:00 am on 17th December 2011, it was confirmed that Mr Major punched Mr Bellman twice, knocking him to the floor; causing his head to hit the marble floor, in an unprovoked attack. This appears to be reaffirmed by CCTV footage of the incident. As a result of the assault Mr Bellman suffered brain damage.
The EAT was required to consider the following issues:
- Whether there was sufficient connection between the employee’s connection and his wrongful conduct, following an organised work social event;
- Whether there was significant connection to the conversation held by the employees in relation to work related matters; and
- The extent that alcohol purchased by the Company played a part in the alleged assault.
The EAT subsequently held:
- As the event at the Christmas party had ended and therefore the expectation and/or obligation on any employee to participate had been concluded, it was held that the “impromptu drink” at the Hotel could not be seen as a seamless extension to the Christmas party.
- “If merely raising something that relates to duties at work has the effect changing a conversation or interaction between fellow workers into something in the course of employment, this would mean that a company's potential liability would become so wide as to be potentially uninsurable.” It was held that work related discussions alone may not be sufficient to satisfy this connection.
- Whilst alcohol was consumed at the party, this did not result in any altercations taking place at the designated premises. It was only after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol, long after a works event had ended that matters escalated. “It was an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant's business.”
The EAT concluded there was an insufficient connection between Mr Major’s position at the Company and the assault in order to hold the Company vicariously liable for his actions. In light of the current season, employer’s should be mindful of the EAT’s focus on the connections between its employees and the events put on by the Company, as this is likely to play a pivotal role in its assessment of any potential vicarious liability against them.
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