Employer not liable for injury at Christmas party

Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK

An employer was not liable in negligence for an injury occasioned to one of its employees at the staff Christmas party; neither was it vicariously liable.

Background

Cancer Research UK (CR) held a Christmas party in its Cambridge Research Institute. Mr Hadfield, head of the genomics department, organised it and completed a risk assessment, his main concern being to prevent people returning to the laboratories during or after the party (two additional security staff were present to prevent this happening). Mr Beilik, a visiting scientist employed by Cambridge University - not CR - attended the party along with Ms Shelbourne, an animal technician working for CR. Ms Shelbourne was on the dance floor when Mr Beilik who had been drinking, lifted her up and then dropped her when he lost his balance. She sustained serious back injuries. Mr Beilik had previously lifted (without injury) other party attendees without their consent. They had not complained. Ms Shelbourne sued her employer, rather than the visiting scientist. The county court held that CR was not liable in negligence for her injury; neither was it vicariously liable for Mr Beilik’s actions. She appealed.

High Court decision

Her appeal was dismissed.

Negligence

CR didn’t deny that it owed Ms Shelbourne a duty of care – the issue was the extent of that duty, whether CR had breached it and whether the breach had caused her injury.

Ms Shelbourne argued that CR should have done more to prevent the accident by putting measures in place at parties where alcohol is served. These should have included:

  • securing a written declaration, signed by the attendees, that they would not behave inappropriately
  • drafting a risk assessment encompassing eventualities stemming from all such forms of inappropriate behaviour
  • training staff (whether or not they are merely volunteering to help at the event), and
  • special training for those responsible for the provision of a risk assessment, covering all envisaged forms of inappropriate behaviour

As a matter of common sense, held the judge, that ‘cannot be right’. The archetypal reasonable person of the early 21st century would not regard this as a socially appropriate set of requirements to impose upon the organisers of any Christmas party or other similar social gathering, regardless of the circumstances.

The judge held that the county court had correctly held that the extent of the duty of care, as it existed at the time of the party, did not require CR to put in place the measures argued for by Ms Shelbourne. Mr Hatfield had produced a risk assessment which took into account that alcohol would be consumed and had made provision for restricting access to the laboratories by those who might consume alcohol. CR had taken reasonable steps in the planning and operation of the party. No duty of care had been breached and therefore negligence had not been made out.

Vicarious liability

To establish vicarious liability, two questions need to be addressed:

  1. What functions or ‘field of activities’ have been entrusted by the employer to the employee or, in everyday language, what was the nature of the job?
  2. Was there a ‘sufficient connection’ between the position in which he was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable under the principle of social justice [emphasis added]?

Counsel for Ms Shelbourne sought to argue that the relevant field of activities of Mr Beilik on the evening of the 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 CR for its own benefit, since it stood to gain from the enhancement of its employees' morale.

This description of the average office/works Christmas party was not, held the High Court, 'one that the archetypal reasonable person would recognise as representing reality. As a general matter, it overstates the position of the employer and, conversely, seriously understates the motivation and autonomy of those attending the party’.

The demands of social justice were not such as to require that CR be held vicariously liable for what had happened to Ms Shelbourne at the party. Mr Beilik’s field of activities was his research work at CR. That field was not sufficiently connected with what had happened at the party, so as to give rise to vicarious liability. CR, through its volunteers, had organised the Christmas party. Its motivation in doing so had not been, primarily, or even significantly, to derive a benefit for its operations. It had simply been responding to the expectation of its staff that that was what their employer did for them at Christmas.

Rejecting Ms Shelbourne’s claim for the imposition of vicarious liability on her employer, the High Court concluded by saying that:

‘the ascertainment of what social justice requires, which lies at the heart of the law on vicarious liability, is not a journey down a one-way street. The desirability of enabling those who have suffered injury at the hands of others to recover adequate financial compensation needs to be balanced against the wider social consequences which may ensue from achieving this result through the imposition of vicarious liability’.

Link to judgment: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/842.html

Comment

This decision can be distinguished from the other recent ‘Christmas party’ case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd where the Court of Appeal held the employer vicariously liable for the actions of a director at an impromptu drinks party after the main event. In Bellman, it was the director’s control over the event which led to the incident and his reaction to what he perceived to be a challenge to his authority as director – which in turn caused him to punch a colleague - which made the company vicariously liable for his actions.