A recruitment company has been found not guilty of vicarious liability by the High Court, following a fight between two employees in the aftermath of a work Christmas party that left one with permanent brain damage.
John Major, managing director of Northampton Recruitment, organised a Christmas party attended by staff and their partners, including the claimant, Clive Bellman – who worked for the company as a sales manager.
Alcoholic drinks were supplied at the party, and consumed by the majority of guests. Once the event had ended around half the guests took taxis to a local hotel, where some members of staff continued to drink in the hotel bar.
By 3am, a few staff members remained at the bar, and the conversation turned to office politics. Employees, including Bellman, discussed a new hire who the others felt had been ‘put on a pedestal’ by Major.
During the exchange, Major felt as though his managing style was being questioned by his team, and launched into an ‘inebriated rant’ about his authority within the company, the court heard, which ended with him stating: “I f***king make the decisions in this company, it’s my business. If I want [the hire] based in Northampton he will be f***king based there.”
He then struck Bellman twice, the second time causing him to fall straight backwards and strike his head on the marble floor, knocking him unconscious. One employee who witnessed the scene described blood coming from his ears, and said he feared he was dead.
The brain injury Bellman sustained as a result of the punch has led to headaches, fatigue, low mood, deficits in verbal reasoning, and speech and language impairment. He is unlikely to return to any paid employment. There was a significant possibility the company could be held vicariously liable for Major’s actions.
However, it was recognised that while the Christmas party was a work event, which employees including Bellman were expected to attend, the assault took place after the formal event had ended.
Judge Cotter QC, who presided over the hearing, said the after-party at the hotel “was, or without any doubt became, an entirely independent, voluntary and discreet early-hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the defendant’s business”.
The distinction between the party and the post-party drinks at the hotel meant Major was no longer acting in the course of his employment, or in his capacity as party host. The court also found that, although the discussion that precluded the assault was work-related, the link was not enough to render the company liable.
“In my judgment, the spontaneous post-event drink at the hotel, the gathering that consisted of the remaining members of the group (which included partners) who were, remarkably, still drinking at 3am, cannot be seen as a seamless extension of the Christmas party,” Judge Cotter said.
“In substance, what remained were hotel guests, some being employees of the defendant, some not, having a very late drink with some visitors.”
Summing up, the judge said that “there was insufficient connection between the position in which Mr Major was employed and the assault to make it right for the defendant to be held liable”, before dismissing the case.
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