On a frolic of his own at the “after party”
The High Court in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment  has ruled that a company will not be vicariously liable for injuries caused by one employee to another after a work Christmas party has ended.
Clive Bellman (the “Employee”) was employed by Northampton Recruitment Limited (the “Company”) from 2010 as a sales manager responsible for the recruitment of drivers to the agency and placing them with clients of the agency. The Employee was a childhood friend of one Company director, Mr Major (the “Director”).
The Company held its annual Christmas party at a golf club, with 24 of the Company’s employees in attendance including both the Employee and the Director. The party was described as “an ordinary or usual work Christmas party of the type no doubt dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others.”
After the Christmas party at the golf club had ended, some of the Company employees alongside the Employee and the Director continued the evening back at a Hilton Hotel. The impromptu after party was going seemingly well until around 3am when the conversation turned to work. This resulted in the Employee and Director entering into a heated debate, with the Director angrily reminding his present employees that he was the owner of the Company and he therefore could make any decision he wanted. This was not the first time that the Director could be described as losing control or having a “rant”.
The Employee challenged the Director in a non-aggressive manner, which riled the Director and led him to punch the Employee. As the Employee staggered to his feet and held his arms up in defence against further attack, the Director punched the Employee for a second time; causing the Employee to fall to the floor and knocking him unconscious. The Employee suffered brain damage as a result of the punches and subsequently now has “cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences.” The Employee is unlikely to work again. Surprisingly, criminal proceedings were not pursued against the Director, but the Employee claimed that the Company should be held vicariously liable for the actions of the Director.
Upon assessment of the facts, the High Court described the Director’s conduct as “shameful and no doubt in part fuelled by alcohol.” In his defence the Director stated that he believed the Employee “was in his face and he lashed out to keep him away.” This was not accepted as the version of events was inconsistent with the CCTV coverage. Despite a refusal to accept this defence, the High Court found that although the attack was committed by the Director; the Company could not be held liable. The act was committed after and not during the organised work Christmas party and therefore a “line could be drawn under the evening’s event” at the golf club. Those who went onto the Hilton Hotel were guests, of which some were employees of the Company having a late drink.
The High Court looked into the extent of the relationship between the Christmas party, after party and the Director. In particular, considering the part in which alcohol played. It was noted that excess alcohol can cause a variety of problems, including the aggression displayed by the Director, however, alcohol is customarily provided at most Christmas parties and is safe when enjoyed in moderation; no incident occurred at the Christmas party at the golf club. The High Court considered that what followed later was in the context of voluntary and personal choices by those attending the Hilton Hotel after party. Furthermore, even if the alcohol at the after party had been paid for this was not enough to support a finding of vicarious liability as it is so far removed from the employment relationship. This was further supported by a line of argument that a mere discussion about work, does not amount to the act taking place within a work related context. It should be noted that the outcome was heavily influenced by the facts of the case and employers need to remain conscious of the risks associated with improper behaviour at work events.
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