Employers can be liable for the actions of an employee when they are acting in the course or scope of their employment, even when incidents occur outside of the workplace or normal working hours.
In a topical decision (based upon a depressing set of facts) the High Court considered when an employer is liable for the actions of an employee at Christmas drinks.
Mr Major was a director, shareholder and employee of Northampton Recruitment and organised and paid for the firm’s Christmas party at a local golf club. Considerable alcohol was consumed and around 15 of the 24 guests, including Mr Major and Mr Bellman, the company’s sales manager, went for further impromptu drinks at a hotel.
At 3am in the morning, in an unprovoked attack, Mr Major assaulted Mr Bellman, punching him twice rendering him unconscious with blood coming from his ears. Mr Bellman suffered a skull fracture and career-ending injuries, including lasting impacts on his verbal reasoning and speech.
Mr Bellman sought to hold Northampton Recruitment vicariously liable for the assault, as the only likely source of compensation for the attack.
The High Court determined that the company was not liable for the acts of Mr Major, despite him being the Managing Director and that work related comments had been made during the assault.
The Court placed great emphasis on the time and place of the incident (an impromptu drink after the official event), rather than the nature of the interaction (a heated discussion about work). There was no expectation on employees to attend the drinks at the hotel and it was a personal decision for everyone to attend. There was insufficient connection between Mr Major’s position and the assault.
Employers should still exercise caution and keep a close eye on all work Christmas events. Employers may be vicariously liable for not only physical assaults, but a wide range of incidents, including discriminatory behaviour. If this incident had occurred at the earlier golf club event, or shorty afterwards, the outcome may well have been different.