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UK: Vicarious liability: employer liable for injury caused to employee after an office party

The company’s managing director (MD) assaulted another employee at an unscheduled “drinking session” at a local hotel after a work Christmas party, when there was an argument about internal company politics. The employee suffered brain damage as a result.

The Court of Appeal said that the two key issues to consider are:

• What was the nature of MD’s job – was he acting within the field of the activities assigned to him as managing director?
• Was there a sufficient connection between his position and his wrongful conduct to make it appropriate for the employer to be liable for reasons of social justice?

The Court concluded that MD’s remit and authority were very wide. He was the directing mind and will of the company and had responsibility for all management decisions, including the maintenance of discipline and would have seen the maintenance of his managerial authority as a central part of his role. He had also chosen to wear his “metaphorical managing director’s hat” at the drinks as he was lecturing his subordinates about his rights as managing director.

The Court said there was sufficient connection between his position as MD and his wrongful conduct as the drinks followed a work event organised by MD on behalf of the company and he also organised and paid for taxis to the hotel and continued to provide drinks which were paid for by the company.

Vicarious liability can arise at informal work-related social events. Employers are more likely to be vicariously liable for the actions of a managing director and other senior managers at these events than more junior staff.

However, the Court emphasised that the facts of this case are unusual. Liability will not always arise when an altercation between colleagues about work leads to an assault, even when one colleague is significantly more senior than the other.

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2018] EWCA Civ 2214