Who’s to blame when the party’s over?

Remains of office party

An examination of the law of vicarious liability following two court decisions now known as “the Christmas party cases”.

Two court decisions in the last couple of years have become known as “the Christmas party cases”. In both, serious injuries were sustained at an office party, but the court’s decision about the employer’s liability was different in each case.

Spinal injury caused by being dropped by another guest

The first case is Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK. Ms Shelbourne attended a Christmas party organised by the genomics department of Cancer Research UK. She was on the dance floor when Mr Beilik, a visiting scientist, lifted her up and then accidentally dropped her when he lost his balance. Unfortunately, she sustained a very severe spinal injury as a result. She raised a claim against her employers, alleging that they were liable for the actions of Mr Beilik.

Cancer Research UK did not deny that they owed Ms Shelbourne a duty of care. However, the issue was the extent of that duty, whether they had breached it, whether that breach had caused her injury.

She argued that her employer could have implemented more preventative measures. Mr Beilik had in fact lifted other women during the course of the party, including one of the organisers. Although he had been drinking at the time, the evidence was that he was not “very drunk”.

The Judge held that no duty of care had been breached. Cancer Research UK was not to be held responsible for Mr Beilik’s actions.

Why was her claim unsuccessful? The following factors were relevant: Mr Beilik was not employed by Cancer Research UK, although he was entitled to attend the party. The party was organised by employees, rather than the employer, and was not paid for by Cancer Research UK. The Court stated that Mr Beilik was sufficiently connected with the business to be at least potentially liable, but his research work was not connected in any way with the incident.

Brain damage caused by being punched by the Managing Director

This can be contrasted with the second case, Bellman v Northampton Recruitment. Employees were expected to attend a company Christmas party at a Hilton hotel. At the after party, held at a Golf Club, the managing director punched Mr Bellman, a sales manager, in a dispute about work. This knocked Mr Bellman to the floor, causing him brain damage. In the court at first instance, it was held that the employer, Northampton Recruitment, was not liable. However, this decision was overturned on appeal.

This case was successful because the incident occurred as a result of the managing director’s reaction to what he perceived to be a challenge to his authority as managing director. It was therefore sufficiently connected with the work entrusted to him by his employer. In assessing vicarious liability, a judge will address the following questions:

  1. What functions or fields of activities have been entrusted by the employer to the employee (who causes harm)?
  2. Was there a sufficient connection between the position in which the person was employed and the wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable as a matter of social justice?

So, in summary, we have two very different legal outcomes resulting from two cases of life-changing injuries sustained at what were intended as enjoyable Christmas events.

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