Possibly, held the Court of Appeal, based on the facts in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.
In certain situations, an employer can be held responsible for the acts, or omissions, of its employees, if they took place in the course of their employment. This is known as Vicarious Liability.
Vicarious liability for the acts of employees is only applicable when those actions arise when an employee is acting in the course of his or her employment.
Mr Bellman worked for Northampton Recruitment Ltd (the Company), who held a Christmas party for its staff and organised taxis afterwards to a hotel where the employees went and continued to drink. Most of the drinks were paid for by the Company.
At this hotel an argument broke out over the terms the Company had offered to a new employee. Mr Major, the MD of the Company, began to lecture the staff on his authority and when Mr Bellman, questioned his actions, Mr Major punched him causing Mr Bellman to fall on to the marble floor.
Mr Bellman sustained a fractured skull, subdural and subarachnoid haemorrhages and a left frontal lobe contusion, which left him with traumatic brain damage. It is a particularly sad story as the actions of Mr Major have resulted in Mr Bellman having brain damage and he is unlikely to return to paid employment again.
It is also worth noting that Mr Bellman and Mr Major had known each other for a long time and reportedly had been friends since childhood.
Not wanting to sue Mr Major (reportedly so as not to potentially ruin his life), Mr Bellman made a claim for compensation against his employer.
At the High Court they decided that the Company was not vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions and therefore could not be held responsible. This was appealed by Mr Bellman and the case went to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal had to look at the facts to consider whether the Company should be held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. They had to consider the nature of his job and whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the conduct complained of, namely punching Mr Bellman. The Court of Appeal noted that Mr Major was the Company’s most senior employee.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Mr Bellman’s appeal and in doing so looked at the original court judgement. In the opinion of the Court of Appeal the original judgement failed to take into account the nature of Mr Major’s role, one in which he has power and authority entrusted to him over subordinate employees. It also noted that the wrongful conduct was triggered by a challenge to his authority as a manager (therefore work related), and that the risk of misconduct had been enhanced by the provision of alcohol by the Company.
The fact that the Company had paid for the taxis and drinks and the incident happened in a hotel after the official Christmas party, led the court to rule that the incident was considered to have taken place at a ‘follow on’ to the official work party and was therefore not a separate event.
Points to note
This decision is significant as it shows that the distinction between official work parties and impromptu after parties is not always clear. If a senior member of staff uses an ‘after party’ to assert their authority and assaults someone then it is likely that the company will be vicariously liable.
Action to take
- Be alert to the possibility that you can be held liable for the actions of your employees at social events which relate to their work.
- Before a staff event, consider highlighting to staff that they are expected to adhere to certain codes of behaviour.
- If you do not already have one, consider creating a social events policy to add to your staff handbook. In the event of a criminal incident, this will show that you have taken reasonable steps to ensure that your employees behave well and will also ensure that any breaches can then be dealt with, fairly, through the disciplinary process.
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