Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016] EWHC 3104

  • Case Reference
    3104
  • Legal Body
    England and Wales High Court (EWHC)
  • Type of Claim / Jurisdiction
    Disciplinary and Grievance Issues, Contracts of Employment
Issues covered: Vicarious Liability; Violence at Work; Extension of Workplace

You will be aware of the shock waves caused by the Supreme Court's ruling in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets PLC [2016] UKSC 11, where the employer was held vicariously liable for injuries caused to a customer by a violent and bigoted employee at a filling station owned by the supermarket.

This case of Bellman seems to row back a little on the Morrison's case. It involved an employee, Mr Bellman, who had been a friend of the firm's Managing Director, Mr Major, since childhood. The firm organised a Christmas party at a local golf club. That went fine. Things took a turn for the worse, when a number of the party went back to a hotel and continued to drink, but not until the early hours of the morning.

It appears that sometime after 2.00am the discussion turned to work matters and around 3.00am Mr Major punched Mr Bellman, who's head struck a marble floor, in an unprovoked attack. He suffered irreparable brain damage. CCTV confirmed the times of incidents - the witnesses were understandably less certain.

Mr Bellman, being unlikely to work again, sued the company for vicariously liability for the injuries suffered. Mr Bellman stated that he been friends with Mr Major for forty years and was sure that it did not mean to cause him harm and could not see the point in prosecuting him as he did not want to ruin his life. Should the firm, effectively owned by Mr Major and his wife, be held liable for the assault of an employee by its MD?

Apparently not, according the High Court. Had it happened at the golf club, the firm would probably have been held liable. But the break between the 'official' event and the unofficial drinking session, where those there discussed social issues, created a sufficient break for it to release the employer from liability:

"What followed later arose in the context of entirely voluntary and personal choices by those present to engage in a heavy early hours drinking session. Given Mr Hancock's evidence it is likely that a large amount of alcohol had been consumed over some hours at the hotel by those who remained discussing matters. Even assuming that the company paid or was expected to pay for some or most of the eventual bill, I cannot see any increased risk of confrontation arising from the additional alcohol at the hotel as properly adding support to a finding of vicarious liability, as it was so far removed from employment.

"Standing back and considering matters broadly, what was taking place at 3.00 a.m. at the hotel was a drunken discussion that rose after a personal choice to have yet further alcohol long after a works event had ended. Given the time and place, when the conversation was, as it was for a significant time, on social or sporting topics, no objective observer would have seen any connection at all with the jobs of those employees of the Defendant present. That it then veered into a discussion about work cannot provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the company that employed them. It was, or without any doubt became, an entirely independent, voluntary, and discreet early hours drinking session of a very different nature to the Christmas party and unconnected with the Defendant's business. To use a hackneyed expression akin to "a frolic" of their own."

Belleman v Northampton Recruitment Limited

This article is correct at 06/12/2016
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