There has been a recent string of vicarious liability cases seemingly increasing the remit for which an employer will be found to be vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited is another one of these cases.
Mr Major was the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Limited (the company). He owned the company, was its most senior employee, acted as its directing mind and made all the managing decisions and dictated the remit of his role.
Mr Bellman was the Sales Manager for the company and a childhood friend of Mr Major.
In 2011 the company had a Christmas party involving all 50 of its staff. Following which there was an after party at a different hotel, both the after party and travel was mainly organised by Mr Major and paid for by the company. Roughly half of the employees attended the after party.
The party was in full swing until around 2am when the conversation turned to the placement and conditions of a new employee. The discussion apparently lasted between 45 minutes to an hour before Mr Major put on his “metaphorical Managing Director’s hat”. At this point, Mr Major began to lecture those employees around him (circa 50% of the workforce) about his rights as Managing Director. Mr Bellman challenged Mr Major in a non-aggressive manner. Mr Major responded violently by punching him in the face. Initially, Mr Major was restrained, but managed to break free and punch Mr Bellman a second time resulting in Mr Bellman being knocked to the floor where he fractured his skull and lost consciousness. It was later discovered that he suffered from severe brain damage and is likely never to work again.
Mr Bellman naturally brought a personal injury claim against the company stating that it was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major.
In the first instance, the High Court stated that the company was not liable for the actions of Mr Major, on the basis that there was sufficient separation/connection of the Christmas party and after party.
However, the Court of Appeal (CoA) decided that the High Court’s view was too narrow and that the decision did not rest solely on what the individual is authorised to do. Overturning the High Court’s decision, the CoA made clear that the company was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. Adopting a broader view, they considered whether his actions had been “in the course of employment”.
To come to this conclusion the CoA looked at:
- The nature of his job
- Whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct that would make vicarious liability appropriate.
The facts of this case are rather unusual and are (hopefully) unlikely to arise again. However it is in line with the trend of cases that we are seeing which appears to be extending the liability of organisations for the unauthorised actions of their employees, where there is some connection between the actions of the errant employee and some employer event. It should not be the case that employers are the insurers for violent outbursts of their employees and, thankfully, the courts will not simply apply vicarious liability just because an argument has resulted in an assault.
If you have any questions about this article or concerns about the vicarious liability of your organisations regarding the actions of any of your employees, please do not hesitate to contact the Employment Team.