27 June, 2019
Sandra Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK (2019) EWHC 842 (QB)
The High Court has considered the liability of an employer after an employee was injured at an office Christmas party by another partygoer.
In December 2012, a Christmas party was held at the Cambridge Research Institute of Cancer Research UK (CRUK), a well-known charity. The party consisted of a buffet, some "oversized" games, a ceilidh and a disco. The event was ticket only, and was open to staff and their guests.
One of the partygoers was Robert Beilik, a visiting scientist. He was not employed by CRUK but due to his involvement with the Institute, he was invited to attend the party. Later in the evening, the Claimant was on the dance floor. Robert Beilik went up to her and attempted to lift her off the ground. He lost his balance, dropped her, and she sustained a serious back injury as a result. Robert Beilik had consumed alcohol throughout the evening and it was understood that he had attempted to lift up three other women during the course of the evening without their consent.
The Claimant brought proceedings against CRUK. The Recorder at First Instance held that CRUK was not liable in negligence for the injury or vicariously liable for Robert Beilik's actions.
The Claimant sought permission to appeal.
The Appeal decision
The High Court accepted that CRUK owed a duty of care to the Claimant whilst at the party; however, Mr Justice Lane found that the duty had not been breached. The party organiser had produced a risk assessment. The risk assessment had regard to the fact that alcohol would be consumed at the party, and despite criticism by the Claimant, the Judge found that there was no need to consider all eventualities stemming from all such forms of inappropriate behavior. Mr Justice Lane commented, "context is all-important". The CRUK Christmas party was an event for adults working in the scientific community in Cambridge, held at the University. There had been no previous incidents regarding inappropriate behaviour caused or contributed to by alcohol and it was therefore reasonable for the risk assessment and the arrangements for the party to be informed by what had (or had not) happened in the past.
The Court then considered whether CRUK should be held vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Beilik. Mr Justice Lane compared the matter to the earlier Court of Appeal case of Graham v Commercial Bodyworks Ltd (2015) EWCA Civ 47 noting that Mr Beilik was not acting in connection with his duties and was engaged on a "frolic" of his own. He drew a comparison to the case of the petrol kiosk attendant in Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets PLC (2016) UKSC 11 where the individual was at work; doing the job he was paid to do when he committed the tort.
Whilst it was unfortunate that the Claimant suffered an injury, Mr Justice Lane concluded that Robert Beilik's field of activities was his research work at CRUK, which was not sufficiently connected, with what happened at the party to give rise to vicarious liability.
The appeal was therefore dismissed.
Employers and those responsible for organising works parties will be relieved at this decision. The Court of Appeal adopted a common sense approach and recognised that if it were to make a finding of vicarious liability in this situation it would have wider social consequences.
This matter can be contrasted to the recent case of Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd (2018) EWCA Civ 2214. The Court of Appeal considered whether an employer ought to be held vicariously liable for an assault committed by its managing director on an employee at an impromptu late night drinking session following an office Christmas party. In this instance, the Court of Appeal found the employer to be vicariously liable for its employee who had been acting in his capacity of managing director at the time of the tort.
Employers have a duty of care towards employees, and this extends to office parties. When organising events, employers should ensure that they have appropriate policies in place setting out the conduct to be expected of staff. It is also recommended that events are risk assessed and reasonable steps taken to remove or minimise risks to ensure the safety of employees.