Last reviewed 2 December 2019

Issues of negligence and vicarious liability are very relevant at Christmas, with increased risks arising from alcohol and inappropriate behaviour. Robert Spicer reports on a recent court ruling.

The recent High Court case of Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK (2019) has considered the issues of risk assessments, negligence and liability in a seasonal context.

The facts

The facts, in summary, were that a Christmas party was held by Cancer Research (CR) at a Cambridge University research institute. It was organised by an employee and run by staff members. It was a ticket-only event open to staff and their guests and included a disco. Alcohol was available.

A risk assessment was carried out before the event and steps were taken to limit partygoers’ access to nearby laboratories. B, a partygoer, was a visiting scientist who was not employed by CR but was working under its supervision. Having drunk alcohol, B approached three women at the disco and lifted them from the ground. When he lifted Shelbourne (S), he dropped her and she suffered a serious back injury.

The case

S alleged that CR was liable either because of its own negligence or because it was vicariously liable for B’s actions. Given the availability of alcohol, CR should have conducted a risk assessment covering all eventualities stemming from inappropriate behaviour, provided trained staff to look out for trouble and required all partygoers to make a written declaration that they would not behave inappropriately.

The decision

At first instance S’s claim was dismissed on the basis that CR had not breached its duty of care and was not vicariously liable because B’s conduct had been outside the field of activities entrusted to him as a visiting scientist.

S appealed to the High Court. The High Court dismissed the appeal and made the following points.

  • CR accepted that it owed S a duty of care. The scope of the duty was flexible. In a nightclub it might require that patrons should be searched and security personnel provided. In a respectable members-only club it might simply require that staff be trained to look out for trouble and alert security staff. Each case was fact-specific and it was not the law that at any organised social gathering there had to be staff trained to look out for signs of trouble.

  • The requirements put forward by S were such that a reasonable person would not regard them as socially appropriate to impose on the organisers of a Christmas party or similar gathering. CR had carried out a risk assessment which took into account the fact that alcohol was available and it had not been necessary to address what an inebriated person might have done on the dance floor. Context was all-important. The party was an event for adults working in the scientific community in Cambridge, held at an institute of the University. It was the third time that a party had been held there and there had been no previous incidents of inappropriate behaviour caused or contributed to by alcohol. It was reasonable for the risk assessment and organisational arrangements to be informed by what had or had not happened in the past.

  • At first instance, the court had drawn the correct inferences from the evidence as to the reasonableness of the steps to be taken during the party to deal with any problems. No one had complained about B’s conduct before the incident. There was nothing to suggest that the staff running the party had been unable to monitor what was happening.

  • The suggestion that a social gathering could only be appropriately monitored by detached observers set the standard of care unreasonably high.

  • The findings of the court at first instance were not undermined by the fact that, after the party, staff recommended that the next risk assessment should cover a wider range of risks arising from the consumption of alcohol. Hindsight was not necessarily determinative of the legal question of what steps were necessary to discharge the duty of care.

  • In relation to vicarious liability, B’s field of activities was limited to working in the institute’s laboratories. S had argued that CR had authorised the party for its own benefit, to gain from the enhancement of staff morale, and therefore B’s field of activities included interacting with fellow partygoers in alcohol-infused revelry. In that scenario, the employer’s self-interest in organising the office party was key. Employees were invited into an environment where alcohol would encourage them to greater intimacy, carrying a risk of injury for which the employer would be liable. That was not a description of the average works Christmas party which a reasonable person would recognise as representing reality. CR’s motivation in organising the party was not to derive a benefit but it was merely doing what staff would expect an employer to do at Christmas.

  • B had not been required to attend the party and was not doing his laboratory work on the dance floor. His laboratory work was not sufficiently connected with his conduct on the dance floor to make CR vicariously liable.