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Vicarious liability

With the festive season in full swing, a recent High Court ruling provides a useful and timely reminder to employers regarding conduct at the Christmas party and whether employers can be held liable for acts taking place outside of the workplace.

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd, Mr Bellman was an employee of Northampton Recruitment. He was a friend of the Company’s Managing Director, John Major. Mr Major had organised a staff Christmas party following which half of the attendees went to a local hotel and carried on drinking. Mr Major repeatedly punched Mr Bellman as he felt that his decision-making had been challenged by Mr Bellman. Mr Bellman suffered a life-changing brain injury.

Mr Bellman brought a claim for damages arguing that the Company was vicariously liable for the acts of its Mr Major. It was not disputed that the Mr Major had violently assaulted him but the Court was to decide whether the Company was vicariously liable for his actions.

Vicarious liability arises in common law where both:

  • The wrongdoer is an employee of the defendant or in a relationship akin to employment; and
  • The tort committed is sufficiently connected with the position in which he was employed.

The High Court found that although Mr Major was an employee of the Company, his conduct was not sufficiently connected with his position as the assault took place at an after party and not at the Christmas party itself. Mr Major could not always be seen to be ‘on duty’.

This case is one of a number of cases where the Courts have explored the doctrine of vicarious liability. However, the test remains vague and will be applied based on the factual circumstances of the case. The previous case of Chief Constable of the Lincolnshire Police -v- Stubbs held a Chief Constable vicariously liable for the actions of a police officer in sexually harassing another police officer after work at a leaving party. It seems that we are no further forward and that this is still an evolving area of law which employers should be aware of particularly at this time of the year.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice on specific facts and circumstances. It is designed as a free update on the law at the time of publishing. Knight Polson Limited trading as QualitySolicitors Knight Polson accepts no responsibility for reliance on this article and recommends that you seek independent legal advice on your specific circumstances prior to taking any steps.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss the contents of the above article, please do not hesitate to contact us on  or 023 8064 4822.


Posted in: Employment

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