Christmas party bust-up: boss to blame. The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

An employer can be held liable for the unlawful actions of one of its employees if it takes place during the course of their employment. This is known as ‘vicarious liability’.  ‘Employment’ is provided with a very wide meaning and can extend to social events that take place off-site and outside normal working hours.

In December 2011, Mr Major, the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Ltd, organised a Christmas party for staff and their partners. After the party he arranged for taxis to take some of his staff and himself to a hotel for the night. Most of those staff stayed up drinking in the hotel lobby.

At around 2am the conversation turned to work and someone made a criticism about Mr Major’s decision making. Mr Major then gathered everyone round him and lectured them on how it was his company and he could do what he liked. One of the employees continued to challenge him, and in an unprovoked attack Mr Major hit him twice. The employee suffered life-changing injuries as a result.

At first, the judge in the case didn’t find the company vicariously liable, but the Court of Appeal did. When establishing vicarious liability, there are two key considerations:

  • The nature of the employee’s job
  • Whether there is sufficient connection between the job and the wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate.

Mr Major owned the company and was its most senior employee. He had full control over how he conducted both his own role and the company. When he began to lecture the staff, although clearly out of hours and out of the office, he was conducting himself in his role as the Managing Director. Not only that, but the altercation came directly after an organised work event attended by most of the staff, and the company had paid for taxis and drinks, all of which made the event ‘sufficiently connected’.

Legal opinion

With Christmas parties almost upon us, this is a timely reminder of how companies can still be held liable for the actions of their employees outside the office. It’s important to educate employees, especially senior staff, on their responsibilities when conducting themselves at social events and identifying what’s considered ‘acceptable’ behaviour.