In the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, the Court of Appeal (CA) held that the Respondent Company was responsible for the actions of a senior employee who injured another employee at an impromptu work after-party.
The Claimant was employed by the Respondent as a sales manager. Mr Major was a director and shareholder of the Respondent, as well as the managing director. On the 16th December 2011, the Respondent held a staff Christmas party at a golf club. At around midnight, Mr Major paid for taxis to take members of staff to a hotel for further drinks, which were mainly paid for by the Respondent. This was not a pre-planned extension of the party, however, most of the original staff attendees, took up the offer.
At around 2am, the conversation turned to work, including the Respondent’s plans for the following year. The Claimant mentioned a new employee who had been the subject of conversation in the office as it was understood that he was being paid substantially more than anyone else. Mr Major became annoyed at being questioned about the new employee’s appointment and subsequently summoned the remaining employees and began to lecture them on his authority. An argument between the Claimant and Mr Major broke out which resulted in Mr Major punching the Claimant. The Claimant’s injuries led to traumatic brain damage.
The court had to consider whether the Respondent was vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major. The judge at first instance held that the Respondent was not vicariously liable. The judge stated that there was a substantial difference between the staff Christmas party and the impromptu drinks afterwards, because the drinks were not a seamless extension of the party and the drinks were attended by some people who were not employees. The judge further stated that the employees made a personal choice to have more drinks at the hotel long after the staff Christmas party had ended, and therefore the drinks were held to be unconnected with the Respondent’s business.
The Claimant appealed and the CA ruled in his favour. The CA had to consider whether or not Mr Major was acting in the field of his activities as the Respondent’s managing director when he lectured the employees at the hotel and punched the Claimant.
The CA held that despite the time and the place, Mr Major was purporting to act as managing director of the Respondent and was therefore in a dominant position. He took it upon himself to seek to exercise authority over his subordinate employees at the hotel and the lecture itself was concerned with the extent of his authority as managing director. Mr Major chose to wear his metaphorical managing director’s hat and lecture his subordinates.
The CA held that Mr Major had misused his position and authority. The drinks party at the hotel occurred on the same evening as the staff Christmas party and was paid for by Mr Major on behalf of the Respondent and therefore the event was not just an impromptu drinks party between colleagues.
This case highlights the potential for employers to be responsible for employees’ conduct where the actions take place outside of work. Misuse of authority can occur out of hours, particularly by someone in a senior position, where there is sufficient connection between their job and their wrongful conduct.
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