Company vicariously liable for director’s violent assault on employee at party

Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, employers are liable for the wrongful actions of an employee which are committed in the course of their employment.

In the following case, the Court of Appeal ruled that a company’s managing director was acting in the course of his employment when he violently assaulted another employee at an impromptu works afterparty.

The Claimant was sales manager for a company, the managing director and major shareholder of which was Mr Major. The company organised a Christmas party at a local golf club which was attended by ten of the eleven members of staff, including Mr Major, and their partners. At around midnight, as the party was drawing to a close, Mr Major paid for taxis to take all those who wanted to go to a hotel for further drinks. This was not a pre-planned extension of the party at the golf club. However, between thirteen and fifteen of the original twenty-four party attendees, including five or six members of staff, took up the offer and went on to the hotel where they continued drinking mainly paid for by the company.

After a couple of hours, an argument broke out about Mr Major’s appointment of a new employee who was being paid substantially more than anyone else. Mr Major became annoyed at being questioned about the appointment and began to lecture the staff attendees about how he owned the company, that he was in charge and that he would do what he wanted to do; that the decisions were his to take and that he paid their wages. The Claimant in a non-aggressive manner, challenged this stating that it would be better if the new employee were based at Nuneaton. Mr Major moved towards the Claimant saying that “I f***ing make the decisions in this company, it’s my business. If I want him based in Northampton he will be f***ing based there” and punched the Claimant who fell down, hitting his head on the ground and sustaining a fractured skull.

The court was asked to decide whether the company was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. The trial judge ruled that it was not liable but the Court of Appeal disagreed. Two key matters needed to be considered: (i) the nature of Mr Major’s job – to be interpreted broadly and objectively, and (ii) whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct to make the company vicariously liable for that conduct. Mr Major owned the company, was its most senior employee and directing mind, and had full control over how he conducted his role. When he lectured his staff at the afterparty, he was wearing his managing director’s hat and establishing his authority in that role. Additionally, that party was not a purely social event happening to involve colleagues but a follow-on from an organised work event attended by most of the company’s employees, where the company paid for taxis and drinks.

In those circumstances, there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s wrongful conduct and his role, rendering the company vicariously liable for his actions.

Comment

Traditionally, an employer would only have been liable for an assault like the one in this case if it had been done while the employee was performing a task as part of his employment – an overly aggressive nightclub doorman for example. However, unlike a nightclub doorman violently ejecting an unruly customer, the assault by the managing director in this case was not  so closely related to his employment tasks.

As a result of rulings like this one, courts may be more willing to say that an employee’s actions are sufficiently connected to their employment making it more difficult for employers to avoid vicarious liability for their employees’ actions.

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd.

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