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The High Court in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment  EWHC 3104 (QB) considered whether an employer was vicariously liable for an assault by a managing director after a work Christmas party.
Following a work Christmas party at a golf club, several employees proceeded to a hotel bar for impromptu drinks. At the bar, a heated conversation about a work-related matter arose which culminated in the managing director punching an employee twice, causing the employee to suffer a fractured skull and severe brain damage. The employee brought proceedings against the employer, claiming that it was vicariously liable for the managing director’s conduct. The High Court dismissed the employee’s claim, holding that the employer was not liable because the assault had not occurred “in the course of employment”. One of the key factors in the Court’s decision was that there was both a “temporal” and “substantive” difference between the Christmas party and the drinks, which meant the drinks were not a seamless extension of the Christmas party and so did not occur in the course of employment. The Court paid particular attention to the fact that (i) the assault took place after, and not at, the Christmas party; (ii) the locations of the drinks and Christmas party were different; and (iii) the drinks had been spontaneous, whereas the Christmas party had been a planned work function. The fact that the assault had taken place in the context of a work-related conversation did not necessarily mean that it had occurred “during the course of employment”.
While this decision may be slightly surprising, it is not new law: whether an employer is vicariously liable for its employees’ actions will depend on the facts of each case, meaning an employer could still be held liable for events at work parties.
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