Is the employer liable for an assault by one of its employees?

With the party season firmly upon us, this recent decision in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited EWHC/QB/2016 provides a useful reminder regarding who is liable for inappropriate behaviour of employees at a work social event.

Facts

Mr M was the managing director of the Company, Northampton Recruitment Limited. After the Christmas party at a golf club in 2011, more than half of the guests, including Mr M and the Claimant, Mr B, went to a nearby hotel to continue the party. It is important to note that this was not a planned extension of the party, although a majority of the guests did attend the continuation party at the hotel. The taxis and some of the alcohol at the hotel was paid for by the Company.

An issue arose between Mr M and Mr B causing Mr M to strike Mr B to the extent that he was knocked out and sustained brain damage. Mr B brought a claim against the Company on the basis that it was vicariously liable for Mr M’s conduct. He did not bring a claim against Mr M personally.

Findings

The Court had to determine whether, at the time Mr M struck Mr B, whether he was acting in the course of his employment so as to make the Company viciously liable.

The court held that it is difficult to identify the boundaries between conduct during a social event. In this case, the court held that a line can be drawn between the Christmas party at the golf club and the continuation of the party at the hotel. Although the assault occurred as a result of discussions relating to work-related matters, that only had a limited impact on the question of liability.

The Court held that, because the assault occurred after the planned work social event and despite the fact that Mr M was a director and shareholder, this did not give rise to the Company being vicariously liable for his actions. If the assault had occurred during the Christmas party at the golf club, the Judge held that the Company may have been vicariously liable.

Comment

As we fast approach the party season, it is prudent for an employer to take steps prior to the social event to limit any liability being imposed on the employer. This can include:

  • Stating that any continuation to the social event whether it be at the nearby pub or hotel is not a work event
  • Issuing a code of conduct to all employees prior to the social event
  • Re-circulating the equal opportunities policy

Taking steps such as this may help in limiting liability on the employer, in the event that a claim arises because of conduct arising at or after a social event.

If you require any further assistance in relation to this article, please do not hesitate to contact:

Sejal Raja
Partner and Head of Employment
T. 020 7227 7410
E. sejal.raja@rlb-law.com


Disclaimer

This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.