12 December, 2016
Bellman v Northampton Recruitment  EWHC 3104 (QB)
In this recent case, the High Court considered whether an employer was vicariously liable for an assault by a member of staff following a Christmas party.
In 2010 the claimant attended a Christmas party organised by his employer at a local golf club. After the party ended half of the guests spontaneously decided to move on to a nearby hotel.
At 3am in an unprovoked attack an employee assaulted Mr Bellman. The Judge described that the assault was fuelled by alcohol. Mr Bellman was punched twice. On the second occasion he was knocked to the floor. He was subsequently rendered brain damaged.
Despite having sympathy with the claimant, the Court found that the employer was not vicariously liable. Firstly, the assault was committed after and not during an organised work social event. The Judge described a substantive difference between the Christmas party at the Golf Club and the drinks at the hotel. What followed on after the party was an "impromptu drink" and unconnected with the defendant's business. Although the company had paid for the taxis, this was no more than part and parcel of the obligations arising from the Christmas party as guests at the hotel would have had to return there in any event.
The Judge acknowledged the principle of social justice that is often employed in such cases, but ultimately concluded that the rule of vicarious liability must have "proper boundaries; it is not endless". The High Court recognised that to extend the application would have placed an undue burden on the employer and its insurer and would effectively make it "an involuntary insurer".
Most of us look forward to the annual festive knees up with our colleagues, however this cases serves as a timely reminder that employers could be held vicariously liable for acts of their employees if it can be shown that the action took place in the course of employment even if this is out of hours and outside of the office.
Employers have been held liable where employees have carried out acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct. Whilst each case turns on its own facts, to have a chance of defending such a claim, employers must be able to show that they have acted reasonably. For instance an adequate risk assessment, a clear written policy regarding behaviour at office parties etc. will all help to demonstrate that an employer has behaved responsibly.
So enjoy your Christmas parties but employers beware!
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