22 December 2016

Should a company be held to be vicariously liable for injuries caused by an employee after a Christmas party club ended in violence?

Not according to the High Court, hearing the case of Clive Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd which centred on allegations that John Major, a director and shareholder of the defendant company assaulted Mr Bellman, punching him twice and knocking him to the floor.

As a result of hitting his head on the marble floor, Mr Bellman suffered brain damage.

The report of the case, available at http://bit.ly/2ha2v3E, notes that the event under consideration "was an ordinary or usual work Christmas party of the type no doubt dreaded by some and an annual highlight for others. Not surprisingly alcohol was consumed by many attending."

Having begun at a local golf club, in an unplanned extension to the party, a number of the guests went on to the Hilton Hotel where, "at 3am or so, in an unprovoked attack", Mr Major assaulted Mr Bellman.

The court rejected the idea that Mr Major acted either because of provocation or in self-defence and described the attack as a brutal assault. It also criticised the decision not to prosecute him after he was charged with assault.

However, at issue before the court was not the attack as such but whether it was possible to sue the company. Was Mr Major "acting in the course or scope of his employment" so as to make the company vicariously liable?

Had the assault happened at the golf club, during the "formal" Christmas party, the answer might well have been in the affirmative; however, after the move to the hotel, the participants were involved in a private drinking session and therefore the answer was no.

It would have been wrong, the court said, for Mr Major always "to be considered to be on, or potentially on duty, solely because he was in the company of other employees regardless of circumstances".