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Can employers be liable for work Christmas party injuries?

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Claire Sleep, Ashtons Legal. Picture: Dave Richardson (22889758)
Claire Sleep, Ashtons Legal. Picture: Dave Richardson (22889758)

In Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019] EWHC 842 (QB) the High Court considered whether an employer was liable for an injury sustained at a work Christmas party.

Cancer Research (CRUK) held a staff Christmas party at its research institute in Cambridge. Mrs Shelbourne was on the dancefloor when Mr Bielik, attempted to pick her up. He lost his balance and dropped her, resulting in her sustaining a serious back injury. Mr Bielik was a visiting scientist and was not employed by CRUK. The County Court rejected Mrs Shelbourne’s claims that CRUK was either negligent or vicariously liable for Mr Bielik’s actions. She then appealed.

Mrs Shelbourne argued that CRUK should have foreseen the provision of alcohol could lead to inappropriate behaviour and should have put in place a range of measures, including asking staff to sign a declaration that they will not behave inappropriately; a risk assessment covering eventualities arising from inappropriate behaviour; and special training for those conducting the risk assessment.

The High Court dismissed the appeal finding that, while CRUK owed a duty of care to Mrs Shelbourne, the reasonable person would not regard the suggested measures as socially appropriate to impose upon the organisers of any Christmas party. It held that the risk assessment that CRUK had undertaken was sufficient and the duty of care had not been breached.

The court also found that while the nature of relationship between Mr Bielik and CRUK was capable of giving rise to vicarious liability, there was not a sufficient connection between Mr Bielik’s role and his wrongful conduct at the Christmas party to make CRUK liable for his actions.

Although CRUK was found not to be liable for Mrs Shelbourne’s injury, each case will turn on its particular facts. The level of risk depends on the nature of the event; had there been similar incidents at previous parties, the court may have found that a more extensive risk assessment would have been required.

The courts have also found an employer vicariously liable where a Managing Director asserted his authority and lectured more junior colleagues, leading to an incident in which he assaulted another employee. The incident occurred during an unscheduled drinking session following a planned Christmas party.

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