In this case, the High Court upheld a decision of the County Court that an employer was not vicariously liable for an injury sustained by one of its employees when another guest at its Christmas party dropped her on the dancefloor. There was insufficient connection between the guest's work and the incident to make it right for the employer to be held vicariously liable.

Background

An employer will be vicariously liable for an employee's (or someone akin to an employee's) wrongdoing where there is a sufficiently "close connection" between the employment and the wrongdoing that it would be just and reasonable to impose liability on the employer. In Mohamed -v- WM Morrisons, the Supreme Court held that the questions that need to be determined are:

  • Looking at the matters broadly, what is the function or field of activities that had been entrusted to the relevant employee by the employer, or in other words, what was the nature of his/her job?
  • Is there a sufficient connection between the nature of the employee's job and his/her wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held vicariously liable, or in other words, is the wrongdoing "within the field of activities assigned to the employee"?

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Facts

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) held a Christmas party at the Cambridge Research Institute of Cancer Research UK. This was the third time that the party had been held at that venue, which had previously passed without incident. The party was organised by volunteer members of staff and admission was by ticket only, open to CRUK staff and their guests. CRUK's risk assessment focussed on ensuring that no-one could return to the laboratories during or after the party and it engaged additional security staff to manage this risk. The assessment also considered how to protect the partygoers from any accidents caused by hard and uneven surfaces, and collisions with other participants that may arise from the games provided.

The Claimant, a CRUK employee, was dancing when another partygoer, Mr Beilik, who had been drinking, attempted to lift her up but lost balance and dropped her, resulting in her sustaining a serious back injury. Mr Beilik was not a CRUK employee but was a visiting scientist at the Institute and a guest at the party. The Claimant unsuccessfully brought a claim in the County Court arguing that CRUK was vicariously liable for Mr Beilik's actions.

Decision

On appeal, the High Court agreed with the County Court's decision. Applying the facts to the test as set out in Mohamed, there was insufficient connection between Mr Beilik's work and the incident to make it right for CRUK to be held vicariously liable. The Court rejected the Claimant's argument that the field of activities assigned to Mr Beilik that evening 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 CRUK for its own benefit, since it stood to gain from the enhancement of its employees' morale".

The Court stated that this is not how a reasonable person would have viewed the situation. The motivation for the party was not CRUK wishing to derive a benefit for its operation. In reality, the party was organised by volunteers and a response to CRUK staff's expectations that this is what their employer does for them at Christmas. Whilst the Court was sympathetic to the Claimant's situation, it confirmed that "the ascertainment of what social justice requires…is not a journey down a one-way street".

Comment

This case is a useful reminder that decisions on vicarious liability will always turn on the specific facts in question. Whilst there is little that employers can do once an employee has committed wrongful conduct for which it is potentially vicariously liable, it would be prudent to remind employees of the Company's policies and how it expects employees to behave and conduct themselves at work and work-related events, to deter such conduct from taking place.

Shelborne v Cancer Research UK, High Court