Vicarious Liability: Employer vicariously liable for Managing Director’s assault


As reported last year, the High Court found that Northampton Recruitment Ltd was not vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director when he assaulted an employee, causing him permanent brain damage.  The Court of Appeal has overturned this decision.

Mr Major, the managing director, who had arranged the company’s Christmas party and was viewed as the company’s directing mind, assaulted an employee in the course of a disagreement in the early hours of the morning when drinking after the Christmas party in a hotel, to which Mr Major had arranged taxis for a number of employees.  Mr Bellman and a number of his colleagues were discussing company business, including concerns that a new employee was being paid substantially more than others.  The managing director started to lecture the group, lost his temper and punched Mr Bellman, who fell backwards and suffered a serious brain injury.

While the incident occurred at an event attended voluntarily, which was at a different location from the Christmas party, the Court of Appeal found that Mr Major’s remit and authority were wide and that his lecturing of the group involved the exercise of his authority over the other employees.  The judge commented that he had chosen to wear his “metaphorical managing director’s hat” by delivering a lecture on his rights as managing director.  The assault constituted a misuse of Mr Major’s authority and, despite the time and place of the drinking session, there was a sufficient connection between Mr Major’s role and the assault to mean that the employer was vicariously liable for it.

The Court of Appeal emphasised that the facts of this case were unusual and that liability will not arise just because an argument between colleagues about work related matters leads to an assault even where one person is considerably more senior

This case is a reminder that the courts will be prepared to find employers vicariously liable for the acts of their employees, even where the acts take place outside working time and outside the workplace.  With the party season approaching, employers may be concerned about this case, and should be clear with employees what standards of behaviour are expected at workplace events, particularly where alcohol is involved.