It is widely reported every year that employment law rights and Christmas parties often collide in a frequently drunken sequence of events that ends up either in an employment tribunal, with a large compensation payment by the employer, or both. This time last year I wrote about a reported decline in “risky” office parties and, a month earlier, about a case resulting from fairly outrageous behaviour by MBNA employees at Chester races.
This year the facts of the case I’m reporting revolve around a Christmas party but stray away from conventional employment law into the area of the potential liability of an employer for the acts of its employees in the context of personal injury.
On 1 December the High Court handed down its judgment in the case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, which was heard from 24 to 26 November. It is a sad story about the aftermath of a Christmas party which got thoroughly out of hand and resulted in the Claimant, Mr Bellman, suffering brain injury which was so severe that he has no recollection of the incident and had to appear in court by a litigation friend.
John Major, his wife Beverley and Michael Geoghehan were directors and shareholders in Northampton Recruitment Limited which ran franchised offices of Drivers Direct, a temp agency for HGV drivers. (Following the assault the Company went into liquidation in June 2012 and was dissolved in October 2013.) The Claimant, Mr Bellman, and Mr Major had been friends since childhood and in 2010 Mr Major offered Mr Bellman the post of sales manager which he accepted in November of that year. He was on a daily rate of £80 plus commission. In 2011 the Company’s Christmas party took place at the Collingtree Golf Club on 17 December. 24 people were in attendance. Alcohol was freely available. One witness recalled that he had about 12 pints and a couple of Jack Daniels in the course of the evening. When the party finished about half of those in attendance decided to continue at the nearby Hilton Hotel.
At about 3.00 a.m. and reportedly unprovoked, Mr Major punched Mr Bellman in the face. Mr Bellman got up and Mr Major punched him again. This time Mr Bellman “went straight back like a falling tree” and hit the marble floor. He was bleeding from his nose, ears and mouth. One employee in attendance thought that he was dead. He was taken to local A&E and then moved on to the specialist unit at John Radcliffe Hospital where he was diagnosed with various brain injuries.
Fortunately he survived but subsequently suffered from numerous symptoms including headaches, deficits in verbal reasoning, speech and language impairment. He was diagnosed with “very severe traumatic brain injury with subsequent cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences”. He is unlikely to return to any form of paid employment.
Mr Major was arrested and charged with GBH. However, the criminal prosecution did not proceed as a result of a mistake made by the CPS.
In the High Court Judge Cotter QC described it as “…a brutal assault comprising…two phases separated by Mr Major being removed and held back by others, breaking free and returning to strike at a time when Mr Bellman, rather than being aggressive, was pleading with him to see sense.” The claim was reported to be valued at £1 million.
What is intriguing from a legal perspective is that the personal injury claim brought on behalf of Mr Bellman was directed not to Mr Major but to the employer, Northampton Recruitment Limited (and thereby for all practical purposes against the insurer of the insolvent company).