Employer vicariously liable for MD’s drunken assault

The key test in establishing whether an employer can be found liable for acts of an employee is whether the employee is acting “in the course of their employment”.  The test is whether the specific acts are “so closely connected with the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable”.

In the recent case of Bellman v. Northampton Recruitment Ltd the Court of Appeal found an employer was vicariously liable for the violent actions of its MD following a Christmas party.  In this case, following on from the office Christmas party a number of the guests went on to a hotel for further drinks.  Many of the group continued to drink alcohol.  In the early hours of the morning conversation turned to work, and the Managing Director lost his temper, proceeding to lecture the employees present about the fact that he was the boss and could make the decisions.  Mr Bellman, a sales manager, challenged him and the MD swore  at him and proceeded to punch him twice.  Mr Bellman was knocked to the floor and sustained significant brain damage when his skull was fractured.  Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages against his employer.

The High Court dismissed the claim on the basis that what happened was a drunken discussion following a work event.  They were of the view that there was insufficient connection to work upon which to base a finding of vicarious liability.  Mr Bellman appealed and the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal.  Whilst the after-party was not a seamless extension of the main Christmas party, it was not just an impromptu drinks party between work colleagues that may happen any night after work.  The drinks occurred on the same night as the main party orchestrated and paid for by the business. The key feature in this case was that the MD had chosen to wear his “metaphorical managing director’s hat” and to deliver a lecture to his subordinates.   What was crucial here was that the discussions about work became an exercise in laying down the law by the MD, and amounted to a misuse of the power vested in him.  This meant that there was a sufficiently close connection to work for the company to be found vicariously liable.

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