Employers can be found vicariously liable for the actions of their staff when these occur in the course of their employment, which can include during an office function, but a recent case looked at the position when an employee suffered a severe brain injury as a result of being punched in the face by the managing director of the company for which he worked during a get-together some hours after a planned works event had finished.
The clash took place after the company's Christmas party at a golf club had passed without incident and staff members had adjourned to the bar of the nearby Hilton hotel. This was not a pre-planned extension to the party, although the managing director had arranged taxis to convey members of staff to the hotel and the drinks consumed were, for the most part, paid for by the company.
Although the conversation at the hotel had for some time focused on social and sporting topics, it later turned to work matters. The employee had questioned one of the managing director's decisions. This challenge to his managerial authority made him angry and he proceeded to lecture those present on how he owned the company and would do what he wanted. He said that he paid their wages and management decisions were his to take. When the employee continued to challenge him in a non-aggressive manner, he lost his temper and twice punched him hard in the face. The employee fell, hitting his head on the marble floor. The injuries he sustained were so serious that he is unlikely to return to any paid employment and lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs.
Proceedings were launched seeking £1 million in damages from the company, but the High Court found that it was not vicariously liable in such circumstances. In the Court's view, what took place at the hotel was a drunken discussion that resulted from a personal choice to consume more alcohol long after the official works event had ended. The fact that the dispute was about work did not provide a sufficient connection to support a finding of vicarious liability against the employer.
In upholding the employee's challenge to the High Court's decision, however, the Court of Appeal noted that the managing director was the 'directing mind and will' of the company. At the time of the incident, he was purporting to exercise his authority over his subordinates and was not merely one of a group of drunken revellers whose conversation had turned to work. The attack arose out of a misuse of the position that had been entrusted to him by the company. The latter's vicarious liability had therefore been established.
The Court went on to emphasise that the decision was specific to the somewhat unusual facts of the case. It is 'emphatically not authority for the proposition that employers became insurers for violent or other tortious acts by their employees'. Liability arose in this case because of the way the managing director 'chose to exert his authority, indeed his dominance as the only real decision-maker, in the company' and that 'this combination of circumstances will arise very rarely'.
The amount of the employee's compensation has yet to be assessed, but is bound to be substantial.