‘Tis the season…to be jolly and wary!

Can an employer be held vicariously liable for an injury caused at a Christmas party?

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal found the employer responsible for wrongful conduct at a work party or after party.

Mr Bellman was a Sales Manager for the recruitment firm and Mr Major was the Company’s CEO. A Christmas party was organised followed by an after party where the CEO arranged taxis to transport everyone back to the pub and continued to pay for the drinks.

After a couple of hours at the after party, an argument broke out about a new employee’s placement and their salary. The CEO was angry about this and gave the employees a lecture. When Mr Bellman questioned the CEO’s decisions, the CEO punched Mr Bellman, causing brain damage.

The court was asked to decide whether the company was vicariously liable for the CEO’s actions. The judge at first instance held not, but the Court of Appeal disagreed.

Two key matters were considered: (i) the nature of the employee’s job— construed broadly and objectively, and (ii) whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate.

Mr Major owned the company, was its most senior employee and managing director and had full control over how he conducted his role.

When he lectured his staff at the after party, he was wearing his metaphorical Managing Director’s hat and establishing his authority in that role. Additionally, the party was not a purely social event happening to involve colleagues but a follow-on from an organised work event attended by most of the company’s employees, where the company paid for taxis and drinks.

In those circumstances, there was a sufficient connection between the CEO’s role and his wrongful conduct, and, accordingly, the company was vicariously liable for his actions.

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