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Is an employer responsible for an assault committed by its employee?

October 31, 2018
Employment Law

In early 2017, we reported on the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Given that the matter has recently been reconsidered by the Court of Appeal, we thought we should give you an update.

The facts

Mr Bellman was the sales manager at Northampton Recruitment Ltd (NR Ltd).  He was also the childhood friend of the company’s managing director, Mr Major. After the works Christmas party back in 2011, Mr Bellman, Mr Major and a number of other employees decamped to a local hotel to continue the merriment (and the drinking). In the wee small hours, whilst discussing a work issue, Mr Major lost his temper and forcefully expressed his views about the fact that he owned the business and he alone should make the decisions. Mr Bellman intervened, seeking to defuse the situation, only to be punched twice by Mr Major.  

As a result of the assault, Mr Bellman suffered concussion and a fractured skull. He subsequently brought legal proceedings against the company, alleging that it was legally responsible for Mr Major’s actions.

The decision

The High Court initially decided that the company was not responsible for Mr Major’s actions. However, the Court of Appeal disagreed. In particular, when considering whether there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s job (as managing director) and the assault in question, the Court of Appeal concluded that there was. When ‘lecturing’ his subordinates on the nature of his authority, he was (in the court’s view) “wear[ing] his metaphorical managing director's hat”. He was “purporting to exercise his authority” and “was not merely one of a group of drunken revellers whose conversation had turned to work”.

Given the circumstances, the Court of Appeal concluded that NR Limited was vicariously liable for the assault on Mr Bellman.

What does this all mean?

This decision will come as no great surprise to many of the commentators who always questioned the High Court’s original decision. The Court of Appeal’s judgment serves as a timely reminder of the potential for employers to be held responsible for the bad behaviour of their staff. This can be the case even when the behaviour in question arises outside normal office hours and well away from the normal working environment.

Interestingly, when covering the previous High Court decision, The Daily Mail speculated that Mr Bellman’s claim might be worth as much as £1m. It will be interesting to see whether he manages to recover anything like this sort of money. That said, it is possible that a deal may now be hammered out behind closed doors, assuming the company finally concedes liability and does not wish to appeal any further.

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