Vicarious Liability: Employer not liable for injury sustained by employee at Christmas party

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Vicarious Liability: Employer not liable for injury sustained by employee at Christmas party

Published 13 May 2019

The High Court has held that an employer was not liable for injuries sustained by an employee when she was lifted from the dancefloor by a visiting scientist

The Facts

Mrs Shelbourne was employed by Cancer Research UK (CRUK). She attended CRUK’s Christmas party during which she was lifted from the dancefloor by a visiting scientist who was working with CRUK on a joint collaboration project. The visiting scientist lost his balance and dropped Mrs Shelbourne. As a result, she suffered a serious back injury. Mrs Shelbourne sued CRUK for negligence.

The County Court and then the High Court decided that CRUK had undertaken a sufficient risk assessment and taken reasonable steps to ensure that the guests at the party were reasonably safe. This focussed on ensuring that partygoers did not return to the laboratories after the party started, as well as considering, for example, any dangers from uneven surfaces and games that were provided. CRUK engaged two additional security staff, to prevent access to the laboratories. Previous Christmas parties had taken place without incident. The County Court rejected her claims both on the basis that CRUK was not negligent, and that it was not vicariously liable for the visiting scientist’s actions.

Mrs Shelbourne appealed to the High Court who dismissed her appeal.

In its decision the High Court noted that the attendance of Mrs Shelbourne, her colleagues and the visiting scientist was not compulsory. It also considered the judgment in the recent case of Bellman (see here), in which the claimant was assaulted by the employer’s managing director as he acted within his managerial remit. In contrast to that case, the visiting scientist’s field of activities with CRUK was research work and the incident at the party was not sufficiently connected with his field of work to give rise to vicarious liability.

The High Court judge, acknowledging that it was extremely unfortunate that the incident had occurred and that Mrs Shelbourne been injured, stated that “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”.

What does this mean for employers?

This judgment should assist employers and their insurers in marking a boundary to the doctrine of vicarious liability. While always fact specific, this case reassures employers that there will not always be a sufficient connection between the remit of the wrongdoer and their conduct for an employer to be found vicariously liable.

DAC Beachcroft acted for the Defendant in this matter.

Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019]

 

Authors

Zoë Wigan

Zoë Wigan

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6564

Ceri Fuller

Ceri Fuller

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6583

Hilary Larter

Hilary Larter

Leeds

+44 (0)113 251 4710

Key Contacts

Zoë Wigan

Zoë Wigan

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6564

Ceri Fuller

Ceri Fuller

London - Walbrook

+44 (0)20 7894 6583

Hilary Larter

Hilary Larter

Leeds

+44 (0)113 251 4710

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