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UK: Employer was not liable for injury at work Christmas party

During a Cancer Research UK (CRUK) work Christmas party, Mrs Shelbourne was dancing when another partygoer, Mr Bielik, who had been drinking, tried to pick her up but lost his balance and dropped her, resulting in Mrs Shelbourne suffering a serious back injury. Mr Beilik was a visiting scientist and was not employed by CRUK. Mrs Shelbourne brought a claim against CRUK alleging that they were liable for her injury.

Mrs Shelbourne argued that, given alcohol was being served at the party, CRUK should have: conducted a risk assessment covering all eventualities stemming from inappropriate behaviour by partygoers; provided trained staff to look out for trouble at the party; and required each partygoer to make a written declaration that they would not behave inappropriately.

The Court decided that although CRUK owed Mrs Shelbourne a duty of care, it had not breached it and so was not liable in negligence. CRUK had conducted a risk assessment which took into account the fact that alcohol would be available, and there was no need for them to have gone on to address what might happen if an inebriated person did something untoward on the dance floor. The Judge concluded that a reasonable person would not think it was appropriate to impose the requirements Mrs Shelbourne argued for on the organisers of a work Christmas party or other similar social gathering.

It also decided that CRUK was not vicariously liable for Mr Bielik’s actions because his behaviour was outside the “field of activities” entrusted to him as a visiting scientist and was not sufficiently connected with his conduct at the party so as to make CRUK vicariously liable.

Employers and their liability insurers will likely welcome the court’s decision in this case, particularly because it comes after recent UK decisions where vicarious liability was imposed on an employer after its Managing Director assaulted an employee at an unscheduled “drinking session” after a work Christmas party, and on another employer after a rogue employee committed a serious data breach (please see our previous update which covers these cases). [https://www.clydeco.com/blog/the-hive/preview/uk-cable-current-awareness-bulletin-november-2018]
The decision in this case illustrates that vicarious liability cases are fact-sensitive. Here there had not been previous incidents of inappropriate behaviour caused or contributed to by alcohol at work parties and no one had complained about Mr Bielik’s behaviour before the incident. It was reasonable for the employer’s risk assessment and organisation of the party to be informed by what had, or had not, happened in the past. If CRUK had a history of issues arising at their social occasions, the Court’s decision might have been different.

Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019] EWHC 842 (QB) [https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/842.html]