Leave your (metaphorical) director hat at home this Christmas

30th November 2018

As the Christmas party season is in full swing, the decision of the Court of Appeal in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment serves as a reminder that employers could be held vicariously liable for the acts of misbehaving employees outside of the workplace and out of office hours.

In the case, the managing director and shareholder of Northampton Recruitment (NR), Mr Major, punched an employee, Mr Bellman, and caused injuries which led to traumatic brain damage. The attack took place at a hotel where Mr Major and Mr Bellman were having drinks with fellow NR employees following their Christmas party at a nearby golf club.

Employees had questioned Mr Major’s management decisions which led Mr Major to summon the employees who were drinking at the hotel to lecture them on his authority. When Mr Bellman non-aggressively challenged a decision made, Mr Major attacked him.

The Court of Appeal considered two key questions and determined that NR were vicariously liable for Mr Major’s act:

  1. What “field of activities” had been entrusted by NR to Mr Major?
  2. Was there a sufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for NR to be held liable?

When addressing the first question, the Court of Appeal highlighted that Mr Major was viewed as the “directing mind and will” of NR, he had a wide remit and was in overall charge of all aspects of NR’s business. The fact that Mr Major had summoned the employees to lecture them on his authority was within the “field of activities” entrusted to Mr Major.

The time and the place of the lecture and subsequent attack did not detract from Mr Major acting as the managing director of NR. As the court stated, Mr Major had chosen “to wear his metaphorical managing director’s hat and … deliver a lecture to his subordinates”. The sufficient connection required between Mr Major’s role and the attack was not affected by the fact Mr Major had chosen to take off this ‘managerial hat’ when he first arrived at the hotel for drinks. Importance was placed on the ‘hat’ being on Mr Major at the time he chose to lecture his employees and misuse his position during the attack.

Employer Considerations

Christmas parties can bring as many issues as they do cheer for HR and/or senior management. This judgment highlights how vicarious liability can stretch to cover acts by employees which were not expressly allowed by the employer and acts which take place outside of work. All employees, but particularly senior employees, should be reminded of the importance of behaving appropriately for the entire evening of a work Christmas party.

However don’t go ahead and cancel your party bookings just yet as the Court of Appeal acknowledged that the circumstances in this case leading to vicarious liability will arise very rarely and will not lead to liability for the employer merely because there has been an argument about work matters between colleagues.

For more advice on how to mitigate the potential risks surrounding Christmas parties see our latest article: HR Guide to Christmas


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