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17 June 2019

175: Employer not vicariously liable for injury to employee at Christmas party

In Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the High Court had to consider whether an employer was liable in negligence, or vicariously liable, for a serious injury suffered by an employee at a Christmas party.

CRUK held a Christmas party at its research institute. A detailed risk assessment was undertaken beforehand. The party was attended by Mrs Shelbourne, an employee, and Mr Bielik, a visiting research scientist who was not employed by CRUK. Mrs Shelbourne suffered a serious back injury when Mr Bielik, who had been drinking alcohol, attempted to pick her up whilst they were dancing and dropped her. Mrs Shelbourne subsequently brought a claim in the County Court for negligence, alleging that CRUK was vicariously liable for Mr Bielik’s actions. The County Court rejected her claims and she appealed to the High Court.

The High Court also dismissed Mrs Shelbourne’s claims. It agreed that CRUK owed Mrs Shelbourne a duty of care, but rejected her arguments as to the extent of that duty. The High Court did not agree that there should have been written declarations from all attendees that they would not behave inappropriately, a risk assessment covering all forms of inappropriate behaviour that could result from a party where alcohol would be provided, and staff trained to look out for any sign of trouble. The extent of the duty of care depends on the context of the setting or event, and Mrs Shelbourne’s list of requirements would set the standard of care unreasonably high for organisers of work social events. CRUK’s risk assessment had been sufficient in the circumstances, particularly given that there had been no incidents at previous Christmas parties. For example, it had covered dangers from uneven surfaces and games, and ensuring partygoers did not return to the research laboratories after the party started. CRUK had also engaged two extra security staff. CRUK’s duty of care did not extend to producing a risk assessment covering what might occur if someone who had consumed alcohol did something untoward on the dance floor.

There was no dispute in this case that the nature of Mr Bielik’s relationship with CRUK was capable of giving rise to vicarious liability. However, the High Court held that it was not reasonable to hold CRUK liable for Mr Bielik’s actions at the party, since they were not sufficiently connected to his research work. The High Court rejected Mrs Shelbourne’s argument that the scope of Mr Bielik’s work activities at the Christmas party was to ‘interact with fellow partygoers in alcohol-infused revelry, leading to the setting aside of the ordinary boundaries of social interaction; all of which was authorised by CRUK for its own benefit, since it stood to gain from the enhancement of its employees’ morale’. The High Court said this would be overstating the position of an employer and seriously understating the motivation and autonomy of those attending the party. CRUK held its Christmas party because that is what employers do at Christmas – not to benefit its operations.

This decision confirms that the extent of an employer’s duty of care depends on the context and surrounding circumstances. The employer’s assessment of the degree of risk will dictate what precautions have to be taken. For example, in this case the outcome on negligence might have been different if there had been a history of trouble at CRUK’s social events, or if its preparations and risk assessment had not been so comprehensive. There was also little doubt in this case that there was insufficient connection between Mr Bielik’s work and his activities on the dance floor to establish vicarious liability. However, this is not always so clear-cut. For example, in the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited, the company was held to be vicariously liable for a managing director’s drunken assault on an employee at an unscheduled drinking session after a Christmas party because he had been wearing his ‘metaphorical managing director’s hat’ by lecturing his employees about work-related issues.

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