Make sure a Law Suit isn't welcome this party season

It’s that time of year where the seasons change and we celebrate a few festivals. But, whether it is a hellish Halloween, or November 5 goes off with a bang, employers need to beware. They could be held responsible for any mishaps during any celebrations – including the parties.

I refer to the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, which was recently heard by the Court of Appeal. Bellman was a Sales Manager at Northampton Recruitment, where Mr Major was the Managing Director.

At the end of a very long, hard year, a Christmas party was organised and, because there was drinking involved, Mr Major arranged taxis to take staff to a nearby hotel. Many of the staff remained at the hotel to have a few drinks – particularly appealing because the recruitment company was footing the bill.

As with many cases where drink is involved, a situation started to get out of hand. Arguments broke out and Mr Major tried to exert his authority by giving his staff a long lecture. When Mr Bellman questioned him, Major punched Bellman knocking him to the floor and fracturing his skull. Bellman suffered brain damage and will probably never work again.

During the case, the court asked whether the company was “vicariously liable” for Major’s actions. In a nutshell, vicarious liability is when someone is held responsible for the actions of another person. So, in a workplace environment, it could be where an employer is responsible for its employees’ actions.

In the High Court the judge said the company was not liable for Major’s actions, but the Court of Appeal disagreed.

They were considering two key matters:

  • the nature of the employee’s job – to be construed broadly and objectively, and
  • whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate.

Mr Major owned the company and was its most senior employee. Therefore it was deemed that he had full control over how he conducted his role. During his lecture to his staff at the after party, he was wearing his metaphorical Managing Director’s hat and establishing his authority in that role.

Additionally, that 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.

That was enough to convince the Court that there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role. Therefore, it was deemed the company was vicariously liable for his actions.

Make sure you are aware of your actions as an employer this party season. If you find yourself in a position where you need some legal advice, contact Downs Solicitors to see how we can help.