Impromptu events could lead to a finding of vicarious liability
12 December 2018
Mr Bellman was a sales manager for the Respondent recruitment firm. Mr Major was the firm’s managing director. A Christmas party was organised. At its end, Mr Major arranged taxis to transport staff to a hotel where they continued drinking, with drinks mainly paid for by the company.
After a couple of hours, an argument broke out about a new employee’s placement and terms. Mr Major got cross and summoned staff to give them a long lecture on his authority. When Mr Bellman questioned Mr Major's decisions, he (Major) punched him (Bellman), causing brain damage.
The court was asked to decide whether the company was vicariously liable for Mr Major’s actions. The judge at first instance held not, but the Court of Appeal disagreed. Two key matters needed to be considered: (i) the nature of the employee’s job – to be construed broadly and objectively, and (ii) whether there was sufficient connection between his job and the wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate. 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 metaphorical 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, and accordingly, the company was vicariously liable for his actions.
There is an interesting article from HR Review - Are employers responsible for what happens at the Christmas party?