UK: Was An Employer Negligent Or Vicariously Liable For Injury Sustained During An Office Party At Work Premises?

Last Updated: 27 May 2019
Article by Michael Crowther

Case law has considered the actions of an over-exuberant attendee to an office party in what continues to be a fact-specific area of law

The law

The law of negligence provides that a duty of care is owed between parties in a relationship of 'sufficient proximity', where the damage suffered is 'reasonably foreseeable' and it is fair, just and reasonable in all circumstances that the duty of care be imposed.

Vicarious liability means that a person (A) can be liable for the actions of another wrongdoer (B), where the relationship between A and B and the wrongful act of B means that it is just and reasonable to hold A legally responsible.  

The interpretation of these tests and application to the facts can make it difficult for employers to gauge where they stand in relation to vicarious liability for negligent acts by an employee. Case law is extremely fact sensitive which can lead to very different outcomes.

Case details: Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019]

In 2017 Mrs Shelbourne attended a Christmas party held at Cancer Research UK (CRUK)'s offices. The party had been organised by a group of volunteers within CRUK and was limited to staff, spouses and staff guests. CRUK hired two door staff for the party, primarily to stop employees and guests accessing the office's laboratories. Mr Bielik, a visiting scientist who was not employed by CRUK but worked at the offices,  attended the party and for reasons better known to himself decided to lift several members of staff up over the course of the evening. He attempted to pick up Mrs Shelbourne, slipped, and dropped her resulting in Mrs Shelbourne sustaining a serious back injury. Mrs Shelbourne sued CRUK for negligence.

Negligence and the duty of care

The Courts considered that CRUK owed Mrs Shelbourne a duty of care; the issue to be decided was at what level that duty was set and for the Court to then determine if CRUK had breached the required standard of care.

At the centre of this deliberation was the provision of alcohol at the employer's event, to what extent this increased the risk factors and whether this increase meant the injury to Mrs Shelbourne was reasonably foreseeable by CRUK in the circumstances.

Mrs Shelbourne argued that, knowing alcohol was to be served, CRUK needed to meet a high standard of care which included attendees signing a declaration of good behaviour and providing trained staff to supervise the event. She also argued that CRUK should have engaged specially trained personnel to complete risk assessments to ensure the assessment covered all envisaged forms of inappropriate behaviour resulting from alcohol.

The Court rejected these arguments, noting that the extent of the duty of care was context-specific, and should include consideration of the social environment in which alcohol is served. For example, a nightclub admitting the general public would need to consider a wider range of alcohol-related risks than an office admitting select guests, particularly as in this case previous events of the same or similar nature had passed without incident.

The Court also had to consider what was just and reasonable and opined that a 'reasonable person of the early 21st Century' would consider Mrs Shelbourne's suggested requirements set the standard of care unreasonably high.

Vicarious liability and consideration of the relevant 'field of activities'

The parties accepted that the relationship between Mr Bielik and CRUK was capable of giving rise to vicarious liability. Therefore the main focus was whether it was just and reasonable in the circumstances to hold CRUK legally responsible. The Supreme Court in Mohamud v WM Morrisons Supermarkets plc [2016] ruled that this requires analysis of the nature of the job done by the wrongdoer and whether there was 'sufficient connection' between the wrongdoer's job ('field of activities') and the wrongdoing. If the wrongdoing occurred within a field of activities carried out to further the employer's aims, the principle of social justice is applied to decide if the employer is vicariously liable.

Mrs Shelbourne argued Mr Bielik was acting within his 'field of activities' by drunkenly interacting with staff at the party and that this activity had been authorised by CRUK for its own benefit because it stood to gain from better employee morale forged at the party.

The Court considered Mrs Shelbourne's argument overstated the role of CRUK who had, in reality, organised the party via a group of staff volunteers at the expectation of staff, rather than because it expected to gain anything from the exercise. In the Court's view, Mr Bielik's field of activities was limited to his research at CRUK and this was not sufficiently connected to the events at the party to give rise to vicarious liability under the principle of social justice.

Wrigleys comment

The decision in Shelbourne is useful in that it demonstrates the courts are unwilling to impose unrealistic duties on employers when it comes to the potential risks of serving alcohol at staff events. However, it is clear that employers should take precautions associated with identified risks informed by risk assessments carried out by appropriately trained staff. Those risk assessments and precautions can reflect on past experiences of similar events and will not necessarily be viewed as inadequate in hindsight.

The Courts' application of Mohamud also clearly shows that they will carefully consider the role and purpose of the wrongdoer in the context of the events as they unfold before finding an employer vicariously liable for their actions – it is not as simple as the wrongdoer being a 'worker' at a work-related event.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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