Vicarious liability – Can an employer be held to be legally responsible for the violent conduct of an employee after an office Christmas party?

/, Personal Injury/Vicarious liability – Can an employer be held to be legally responsible for the violent conduct of an employee after an office Christmas party?

Case: Bellman -v- Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214

Why is the case important?

The Court of Appeal decided that an employer was vicariously liable for the costs of providing care to one of its employees who suffered life changing injuries after he was punched by the Managing Director at an impromptu gathering that occurred after the office Christmas party.

What is vicarious liability?

In simple terms, vicarious liability means that one person or organisation is legally responsible (liable) for the actions or omissions of another person. When considered in an employment context, this means that an employer can be held to be liable for the actions or omissions of its employees, provided it can be shown that those took place in the course of their employment.

“Employment” is given a wide meaning and can be extended to cover work related social events, events that take place off site and also outside of normal working hours, especially if they are organised by the employer.

However, the dividing line is sometimes blurred. What is the legal position if something happens after a social event organised by the employer?  Who is legally responsible if one employee assaults another employee? Is it the employer or the employee who committed the assault?

These questions were considered in the case of Bellman -v-Northampton Recruitment Limited [2018] EWCA Civ 2214.

Facts of the case

Mr Bellman was employed as a Sales Manager at Northampton Recruitment Limited.  The company was a small recruitment agency for HGV drivers run by its Managing Director, Mr Majors, who was in overall charge and also long standing friends with Mr Bellman.

Mr Majors organised a Christmas party for employees and their partners, which was held at a local golf club.  After the party, he arranged for taxis to take some of the guests home. The rest of the guests decided to go to a hotel, where some of the guests were staying.  At around 12:30am, Mr Majors and some of his staff arrived. Rather than going to bed, most stayed up drinking and talking in the lobby well into the early hours.

Subsequently, after about an hour and half, the conversation turned to work. Towards 3am,  an argument arose between Mr Bellman and Mr Majors relating to the terms of appointment of another Sales Manager.  Mr Majors was annoyed that his decisions were being questioned so he summoned all of the employees who were still there and then proceeded to lecture them about how he was in charge,  how he would do what he wanted, how he paid their wages, and how the decisions were his to take and no one else’s.  When Mr Bellman again and in a non-aggressive manner verbally challenged Mr Majors’ decision about the other Sales Manager,  Mr Majors reacted aggressively by shouting that it was his business and he made the decisions, before punching Mr Bellman who fell down.

Mr Bellman was bleeding from his left eye, but immediately got back up and held his hands in a gesture of surrender towards Mr Majors.  Despite this though, the other employees still had to restrain Mr Majors.  However, he broke free and hit Mr Bellman with a second punch, which knocked Mr Bellman out, and resulted in him falling straight back, hitting his head on the ground.

Tragically, the consequence of these actions was that Mr Bellman suffered serious brain damage.

As the brain damage was serious, Mr Bellman suffered significant and life changing injuries, which required him to be cared for. He sued his employer for the costs of that care, alleging that it was vicariously liable for Mr Majors’ assault.

To recover compensation, Mr Bellman had to be able to show that his employer was legally responsible for the actions of Mr Majors in punching him, which had directly resulted in him suffering brain damage and therefore, needing to be cared for.

High Court

The case was initially considered in the High Court.  However, Judge Cotter QC dismissed the case and determined that Mr Bellman’s employer was not responsible for the actions of Mr Major. Despite the attack being triggered by a work-related discussion,  he decided that this was not enough to bring the encounter within the course of Mr Majors’ employment. Instead, he said that alcohol had been a significant factor. Specifically, that a personal decision had been made to drink further alcohol, a long time after a work event had ended.  In his opinion, just because the conversation had turned to work before the assault, did not necessarily provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability.

Mr Bellman disagreed with the decision and appealed it. This was upon the basis he believed that there was a sufficient connection between Mr Majors’ position as Managing Director and his wrongful conduct, to make his employer liable under the principle of social justice.

Court of Appeal

More particularly, the reasons for the appeal were based upon the belief that firstly Judge Cotter QC (the trial judge) had failed to take into account the significant nature of Mr Majors’ job. Secondly,  that he had incorrectly determined that there was insufficient connection between the role in which Mr Majors was employed and his conduct, to make it right for the employer to be liable under the principle of social justice.

In itself, the appeal relied heavily upon the trial judge’s own factual findings. Ultimately, Mr Bellman was successful and the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal.  The Court decided that there was a “sufficient connection”.  Primarily, this decision was based upon evaluating and resolving a question of law based upon the primary facts determined.

In this regard, the Court had to assess the responsibilities, duties, functions or fields of activities entrusted to the particular employee in question being Mr Majors.  It was necessary to deal with the issue broadly. Whilst factors such as timing, location, context and circumstances were relevant,  they were not conclusive by themselves.

Importantly, Mr Majors played a significant role in the company. His duties were widely drawn.  He was the directing mind and will of what was a relatively small company. The business in itself was a 24 hour operation because an employee was always on call.  Furthermore, he was in charge of all aspects of the business including making all the managerial decisions, he controlled his own methods of working, had no set hours of work, and the majority of his time, was spent working either directly or indirectly on company business. Therefore, his authority and remit were extremely wide, which was a crucial factor in the Court of Appeal’s decision.

In the circumstances, the Court overruled the trial judge and decided there was sufficiency of connection between Mr Majors and his conduct.   There were essentially three reasons for this decision. Firstly,  the fact that the unplanned drinks party at the hotel happened immediately after a work event, which had been paid for and organised by Mr Majors. Secondly, that he had adhered to his management duties for a significant part of the evening. Thirdly, that he was not simply attending as a fellow reveller, but crucially, he was also present as the Managing Director of the company, which in itself meant his area of influence was virtually unrestricted.

When Mr Majors’ managerial authority was challenged,  he made a point of summoning the employees who were present. He then actively decided to exercise his authority over them, and to strongly emphasise the nature and extent of his authority, with a view to actively stamping out what he believed to be dissent.

There was no suggestion that Mr Majors’ conduct was generated by a personal grievance against Mr Bellman. His behaviour arose solely from an abuse of the position entrusted to him as Managing Director, and from his gross over reaction to being verbally challenged by Mr Bellman in a non-aggressive and non-provocative manner.

Therefore, despite the fact that the assault on Mr Bellman took place several hours after the end of the Christmas party at an unplanned gathering, the Court of Appeal decided that the company was liable for the actions of its Managing Director.

Mr Majors’ role as Managing Director provided him with power and authority over his staff, which he grossly misused.  He was not simply a “fellow reveller”, but had in fact deliberately used his position as Managing Director to berate his staff and to physically attack Mr Bellman. Accordingly, this very firmly laid the blame at the door of his employer.

Conclusions

Firstly, the decision in Bellman does not automatically mean that employers will be responsible for the violent actions and/or misconduct issues of their employees towards fellow work colleagues. Secondly, vicarious liability wouldn’t arise simply because of an argument about work related matters between colleagues of differing levels of seniority.   Thirdly, and in practice, the combination of circumstances in Bellman would arise very rarely. The decision in itself was very much fact specific.

Each case in the future will have be decided upon its own particular facts in terms of whether vicarious liability arises in those particular circumstances.

Dealing with the appeal, there were three critical factors that appear to have lead to its success.  These were the extremely wide scope of Mr Majors’ authority, his entitlement to exercise that authority, and finally, his conduct in asserting his authority in those particular circumstances.

Consequently, and as stated above, the decision in Bellman does not mean that employers will automatically be liable for the violent or other blameworthy conduct of their employees, but they may do if:

a) The perpetrator is in a position of power within the organisation; and

b) There is a strong connection between that position and his/her wrongful conduct.

This is likely to be the case regardless of whether the incident takes place in the workplace itself or after a work event provided that the necessary criteria for vicarious liability are proven.

Tips for employers

Practically, it can be difficult to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour at social events, especially at Christmas parties, where alcohol is usually flowing, and employees are relaxing and having a good time.   Furthermore, an employee may just see it as a normal social event,  forgetting where they are and that they are still representing their employer.  Consequently, this can lead to the employee acting inappropriately or perhaps saying something out of turn, which then has lasting and damaging repercussions.

In these circumstances, an employer must be able to anticipate any potential difficulties. The best way of doing this is to ensure that employees are aware of the standards of behaviour that you expect of them both in the workplace and at social events.  A clear written policy should set out those standards and be circulated to all employees when they start their employment.  It would also be a good idea to perhaps remind employees occasionally before social events/Christmas parties about the policy.

If employees are made aware that social events are an “extension of the workplace”,  this will hopefully ensure that no conduct and/or behavioural issues then arise.

By | 2018-11-14T14:22:34+01:00 November 14th, 2018|Employment Disputes, Personal Injury|

About the Author:

Katherine Swinn
Katherine works as a Consultant Solicitor for Truth Legal. She is a highly experienced Solicitor skilled in Civil Litigation, Dispute Resolution and Employment Law. Katherine has worked locally in the legal profession for nearly 11 years. She is also the Honorary Secretary of the Harrogate & District Law Society.