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Court Of Appeal Overturns High Court Ruling In Christmas Party Punch Case

Company Liable For Actions Of Its Director


David Shirt, Press Officer | 0161 838 3094

The Court of Appeal has this week ruled that a recruitment company is liable for the actions of its managing director who punched an employee out of office hours and left him brain damaged.

The case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd relates to events following a Christmas party in December 2011.  

A number of employees and their partners, including Mr Major, the managing director of the recruitment company, went to an impromptu after party at a hotel where they had planned to stay the night.

At 3am, after the Christmas party had ended, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman, an employee of the firm, following conversations about sport and a heated discussion about work. 

As a result of the assault Mr Bellman hit his head on the hotel’s marble floor and was sadly left brain damaged. Mr Bellman is unlikely to ever return to any paid employment or his pre-injury levels of functioning. 

It is a significant case in terms of employment law as it examines the issue of vicarious liability and in particular, whether a business is still liable for the actions of its directors and employees even if the incident took place out of office hours.

The High Court judgment which ruled that the recruitment business was not liable, was appealed. The Judge at the time said Northampton Recruitment was not vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Major, as the original office Christmas party had finished and those that were there had attended on an entirely voluntary basis. It also said Mr Major was not on duty just because he was in the company of other employees.

The Court of Appeal has now overturned the decision. The Judge said that although the assault took place hours after the end of the party, the altercation arose because the director was asserting his managerial authority after workers had expressed criticism about some of his decisions.  As the Judge put it, Mr Major “was wearing his metaphorical managing director’s hat … to deliver a lecture to his subordinates” and he did this “with the use of blows”.  This was not a situation where there were a group of drunken revellers talking about work. Instead, the attack arose out of the misuse of Mr Major’s power. 

Expert Opinion
“This is a significant decision. The distinction between official work parties and impromptu after parties will not be the deciding factor. If a senior member of staff uses the after party to assert their authority and assaults someone, vicarious liability is likely to follow.”
Sybille Steiner, Partner