Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd

Works Christmas party, unacceptable conduct and employer liability all in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd. Read more here.


James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.


18 December 2018


11 July 2024
3 min read

Background of the Case

A work’s Christmas party was being held at a local golf club where most employees were in attendance. Once the party had finished, the Managing Director arranged for the party to continue at a nearby hotel where many employees were staying. The accommodation was paid for by the MD. Half of the Christmas party guests followed where drinking continued. 

A controversial issue regarding work was discussed at the after party, and the Managing Director lost his temper. The conversation continued with the MD telling employees that he owned the Company and therefore he made the decisions.

A Sales Manager (the Claimant) challenged him and was then punched twice by the MD. The second punch caused the Claimant to fall to the floor, where he fractured his skull and lost consciousness, and as a result, he is unable to work again due to severe brain damage. 

The High Court determined that the Company was not liable because the incident happened at the nearby hotel, rather than at the work’s Christmas Party. 

Court of Appeal

However, in October 2018 the High Court decision was overturned.

This was determined by looking at the Managing Director’s role, authority and the connection between these and the incident.

The Judge determined that the MD asserted his authority as the sole decision-maker in the business and proceeded to assault an employee. Therefore, it would be the right decision to hold the Company liable.

It was made clear that a Company will not automatically be liable just because an incident arose from a conversation about work.

Unacceptable Conduct 

In addition to violence, employees will need to be aware of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour. It will need to be made clear that despite being out of working hours, there are still behaviours that will not be tolerated.

The most common cause of conflict or inappropriate behaviour at a Christmas party is due to alcohol. Playful name calling or drunken flirting may appear harmless. However, this could constitute harassment where the Company can be held liable for the employee’s actions. 

Employees will need to have a clear idea of what is appropriate behaviour despite the event being held out of working hours. Simple reminders about the Company expectations for the event. 

Employer Liability 

In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment a two-stage test from Mohamud v Morrisons Supermarkets was considered to determine if the Company was also liable for the actions of the MD. 

  • The relationship between the wrongdoer and the Company will be looked at and,
  • whether the connection between the relationship and the wrongful act is close enough for the business to be liable.

Despite the case law, there is no clear-cut decision on determining whether a Company would be liable for incidents involving employees at work-related events. The individual that was involved in the altercation will be liable, regardless of the decision about the Company.

The incident will need to be assessed to determine whether it would be right to hold the Company liable for acts of an employee. However, aspects of the function will be considered such as whether the business organised the event, who paid for it, who was invited.

The Day After…

Often the Christmas party happens, and employees need to attend work the next day. Therefore, it is also worth making staff aware that it is not acceptable to overindulge to the point that it will negatively impact them during work.

It may be useful to communicate with employees that hangover related absences or mistake will not be tolerated as this can cause additional costs for the Company. The behaviour will need to be assessed to determine whether the business should take action by following the disciplinary procedure.

Whether any activity resulting from a work’s related social event is deserving of disciplinary action will need to be assessed on an individual basis. As a general rule, it is essential to establish values in the workplace that are suitable and encourages employees to display appropriate behaviour. Also, ensuring that the Company policies are accessible and clear help employee awareness of what is unacceptable behaviour and that it may result in disciplinary action being taken.

Before a work function, it may be beneficial to made employees aware of the types of behaviour that will not be tolerated. Make them aware that the Company code of conduct will still apply, despite the event happening outside working hours. Communicate to employees that they need to take some responsibility for their own health and safety, failing to do so, co-workers can be affected by their actions. 

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