Vicarious Liability: assault at a Christmas party

8th December 2016

In the recent decision of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd (2016), the High Court held that a company was not vicariously liable for the assault by one of its directors on an employee following a company Christmas party.

Northampton Recruitment Limited (“the company”) was a small recruitment company with 11 staff. The company held a Christmas party in 2011 at a golf club where some members carried on the party and some ’impromptu drinks’ at a nearby hotel. The managing director, Mr Major, and a colleague got into a heated discussion about a work matter at the hotel. Mr Major punched his colleague twice; the second blow knocked him out causing him to fall and sustain brain damage. The employee brought a claim against the company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the manager’s conduct. The High Court rejected the claim.

Various liabilities could have existed, however the judge ruled that the circumstances prevented the company being liable. The assault was committed after, and not during, the Christmas party at the golf club. The events that followed at the hotel were in the context of an entirely voluntary drinking session which was a personal choice and therefore a clear line could be drawn to distinguish the two events, despite some drinks and cabs being paid for by the company.

The Judge stated in his conclusion that the hotel drinks ‘was, or without any doubt became, an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant’s business.’

This case provides a reminder that when assessing vicarious liability, it is clear to bear in mind the nature and connection between the parties and the event.