The Court of Appeal has overturned the High Court’s ruling in relation to the vicarious liability of a company for the violent assault on an employee by its Managing Director.

It has long been established that an employer can be held vicariously liable for the actions of an employee carried out “in the course of employment.” In order to satisfy this test the actions must be "so closely connected with the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employers vicariously liable."

The Case

In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Managing Director ended up in a controversial disagreement with an employee regarding the recruitment of a new employee. This led the Managing Director to lose his temper and punch the employee twice, causing him to fall to the floor unconscious. The employee suffered severe brain damage as a result.

Of course had this happened in the workplace, there would be little question as to the employer’s vicarious liability. However, the assault occurred at an unplanned extension of the company’s Christmas party, held at a different venue and attended by approximately half of the party guests. Although the company paid for the taxis to the venue and there was an expectation that they would pay for at least some of the drinks, this was not in any way an event put on by the company.

These were the key elements which formed the basis of the High Court’s decision that the attack could not be deemed to be in the course of employment and that it would not therefore be just to hold the employer vicariously liable. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the extent of the employee’s injuries, the judgment was the subject of an appeal.

Who's Liable?

The Court of Appeal focused on the Managing Director’s ‘field of activities’ in determining whether the attack could rightly be held to be in the course of employment. The Court felt that given his seniority and broad remit within the company, the discussions about work (despite not being carried out in a work-setting or during normal working hours) became an assertion of his authority over his employees. On that basis, the Court held that the attack was sufficiently closely connected with the employment to render it just to hold the company vicariously liable for his actions.

This is of course a rather extreme and unusual case and the extent of the employee’s injuries likely played a part in the Court of Appeal’s decision. However, the judgment does highlight the importance for employers in exercising caution around social events attended by employees and the associated risks of potential liability for their employees’ actions.

Party with Caution

In the lead up to the festive period when there are likely to be numerous social events attended by employees, companies are advised to ensure they have adequate and up-to-date policies in place (and that employees are reminded of these) covering the types of behaviour expected when representing the interests of the business, at both organised and impromptu social events.

This article has been provided to TBOS by our preferred legal advice supplier SA Law. Click here for more views and insights from SA Law.


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