Clive Dobbin and Tabytha Cunningham | 2nd December 2021

Vicarious Liability : Was the employer liable when the Managing Director punched an employee after the Christmas party?

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Clive Dobbin and Tabytha Cunningham | 2nd December 2021

Vicarious Liability : Was the employer liable when the Managing Director punched an employee after the Christmas party?


Many employers are currently reviewing whether their Christmas events should go ahead this year following the recent variant concerns.

Christmas parties also raise other issues for employers to consider, including when they can be vicariously liable for something that goes wrong at work related events. Unfortunately this is a common issue that we see, particularly in relation to discrimination claims, such as for harassment claims. Employers can also have vicarious liability if an employee causes an injury to another member of staff.

Vicarious Liability

The concept of ‘Vicarious Liability’ in an employment relationship, involves an employer being liable for the unlawful actions of an employee, where there is a sufficient connection between the unlawful action and the employee’s employment. It would not matter that the employer itself committed no wrong.

One interesting case tests this principle during the festive season.

Mr Major was the Managing Director of Northampton Recruitment Limited. The company Christmas party was held at a local golf club. Following the party, half of the guests including Mr Major and an employee called Mr Bellman, went to a hotel where some were staying. The company paid for the taxis to the hotel but it was an impromptu extension of the party. A controversial work matter arose at around 2am after all had been drinking heavily on the company’s bill. Mr Bellman challenged Mr Major in a non-aggressive manner and Mr Major lost his temper. Mr Major punched Mr Bellman twice, with the second blow knocking him out and causing him to fall. He sustained brain damage. Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages against NR Limited on the basis the company were vicariously liable for Mr Major’s conduct.

The High Court decided that the company did not have vicarious liability for the director’s assault on the employee. The Court used the following reasoning:

  • that a line could be drawn between the work party and the ‘impromptu’ drinks as this was not a planned extension of the Christmas party;
  • it would be unfair for the director to always be considered ‘on duty’ because he was in the company of other employees, regardless of the circumstances; and
  • the assault was committed after, not during, a work social event.

It was discussed that if the mere fact of having a work discussion between colleagues were enough for vicarious liability to arise, it would mean that a company’s potential liability would become so wide to be potentially uninsurable. As a result, the Court held that the actions were so far removed from employment, that the company should not be liable.

Although this case provides evidence as to when a company won’t be liable for employees actions outside of work, be aware that employees unlawful actions at a work event such as a Christmas party, are often found by the Tribunal/Courts to be within the course of employment. This means that the company would be jointly liable and damages would need to be recovered accordingly. If you need any advice relating to this, please feel free to contact a member of the Employment team.

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited