An employer has been held liable for an employee’s serious brain injury, after its managing director punched the employee at an impromptu drinks session following the company Christmas party.

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd a company arranged its Christmas party at a local golf club. After the party ended, a group of staff decided to continue drinking at a nearby hotel. This was not part of the Christmas party but Mr Major, the managing director, provided taxis to the hotel and continued to fund drinks at the company’s expense.

The conversation eventually switched to talking about work. Things became heated when Mr Bellman raised the topic of his salary to Mr Major. The “significantly inebriated” Mr Major interrupted all the staff in the room and ordered them to gather round him. He then lectured the staff, saying that he was in charge, and that he paid their wages and could do as he pleased. When Mr Bellman challenged him again, Mr Major become violent, twice punching Mr Bellman so hard that Mr Bellman fell and suffered serious and life-changing brain injuries.

Under the principle of ‘vicarious liability’, when an employee does something on behalf of their employer, the employer can be held liable for any wrongdoing by the employee.

At the first instance hearing in the High Court, the employer was not found to be vicariously liable. The decision was on the basis that the company’s official Christmas party had clearly finished at midnight, and what followed was “an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session” unconnected with the employer’s business.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed this decision. It found a connection between Mr Major’s duties for the company and the physical attack. He had been “wearing his hat” as the company’s managing director at the time. The drinking session was “a very long way from being a social round of golf between colleagues” and the employees at the hotel “can have been in no doubt at that stage that Mr Major was purporting to exercise managerial control over them”.

Recent cases have shown that it is increasingly difficult for an employer to argue there is no connection with the actions of their employees. However, each case will turn on its own facts. In this case, the almost unrestricted control Mr Major enjoyed over the affairs of the company was key, along with the fact that he chose to exert his authority so clearly on those present.

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