We hope you all had a lovely Christmas. This case is (not) full of festive cheer, considering, as it did, whether an employer was vicariously liable for the act of a managing director who attacked and seriously injured an employee at drinks following the work Christmas social.
Mr Bellman (B) was a sales manager at a recruitment company which had two offices, one in Northampton and one in Nuneaton. Mr Major (M) was the managing director and shareholder of the company. A month before the Christmas party Mr Kelly (K) had joined the Northampton office and was rumoured to be paid significantly more than other employees. Twenty-four employees and partners attended the Christmas party, and some were staying at a hotel nearby. After the party ended around half the attendees carried on drinking in the hotel lobby, believing M or the company would pay. The topic of conversation at the after-party drinks moved on to work, where B brought up K’s hire. M became very angry and summoned the remaining employees to tell them how ‘he owned the company, that he was in charge and that he paid their wages’. B responded with a relatively innocuous comment about which office he thought K should work at, at which point M swore and punched B twice, which resulted in B falling backwards and fracturing his skull.
The High Court considered the case. They held that the works event had ended and that as a principle of social justice and economic policy there was an insufficient connection between M’s position and the attack for the company to be liable.
However, the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court’s decision. They found that there was a sufficient connection between M’s job and the assault on B to render the company vicariously liable. Despite the drinks after the ‘official’ party being spontaneous, they nonetheless happened as a result of the work Christmas party. M was clearly asserting his authority and responsibility for management decisions when delivering the speech to employees about paying their wages. Before this speech the discussion of conversation had been centred around work for a period of time and the drinkers attended the party as employees or partners. Therefore, the company should be held to be vicariously liable for M’s actions.
Once again, then, a reminder that employers are more likely than not to be vicariously liable for any work-related event and that this liability will often extend to an ‘after party’ that develops from the official event. In the circumstances, it would be wise to dust off the firm’s events and alcohol policies and make sure they set some very clear guidelines about what you expect of your employees.