With summer rapidly approaching lots of employers will no doubt be thinking about organising social events for staff. Whilst these types of events are great for boasting morale and re-energising staff, employers need to be mindful of the potential issues that can arise, particularly where alcohol is involved.
There have been a number of cases over recent years in which employers have been held to be vicariously liable for the actions of individual employees whose behaviour has got out of control during a social event. With every case on the matter we get a bit more clarity on the responsibility of employers. The most recent case, Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK, concerns an employee who was injured as a result of another individual’s actions during a work Christmas party.
Facts of the case
Cancer Research UK (“CRUK”) held a Christmas party in 2012 at its research institution in Cambridge where alcohol was served. CRUK carried out a risk assessment prior to the party which focused on ensuring partygoers did not return to the laboratories after the party had started. CRUK also hired 2 additional staff members to prevent employees going back into the laboratories. It was noted that CRUK had not had any incidents at previous Christmas parties.
Mrs Shelbourne, an animal technician, attended the party as did Mr Bielik, a visiting scientist. Mrs Shelbourne was dancing at the party when Mr Bielik, who had been drinking, attempted to pick her up. He lost his balance and dropped her, resulting in Mrs Shelbourne suffering a serious back injury.
Mrs Shelbourne sued CRUK for negligence in the County Court. Her claim was rejected so she appealed to the High Court. She argued that CRUK had been negligent and that it was vicariously liable for Mr Bielik’s actions.
To succeed with a negligence claim Mrs Shelbourne needed to demonstrate that CRUK:
- owed her a duty of care;
- that it breached that duty; and
- that Mrs Shelbourne suffered loss as a result of that breach.
The High Court held that CRUK did owe a duty of a care to Mrs Shelbourne but that on this occasion they had not breached that duty and as a result had not been negligent. The Court was satisfied that CRUK’s pre-party risk assessment and organisational requirements were adequate. The party was the third such event to have been held at the institute and there had been no previous incidents of inappropriate behaviour and there had been no complaints about Mr Bielik’s behaviour before the event.
In relation to the issue of whether CRUK could be held to be vicariously liable for Mr Bielik’s actions, the Court had to consider the following:
- whether there was a relationship between Mr Bielik and CRUK; and
- if there was, whether the connection between that relationship and Mr Bielik’s actions was such as to make it just and reasonable to hold CRUK legally responsible for his conduct?
The High Court was satisfied that there was a relationship between CRUK and Mr Bielik so it went on to consider whether it was just and reasonable to hold CRUK legally responsible to Mrs Shelbourne for the consequences of Mr Bielik’s conduct.
Mrs Shelbourne argued that Mr Bielik’s ‘field of activities’ at the Christmas party was to “interact with partygoers in alcohol-infused revelry which led to the setting aside of ordinary boundaries of social interaction all of which was authorised by CRUK for its own benefit to enhance employee morale.”
The High Court held that CRUK was only “responding to the expectation of its members of staff that this is what an employer does for them at Christmas“. The Court was satisfied that this was not a case where Mrs Shelbourne was at work when Mr Beilik committed the alleged act or that his research work at the institution was sufficiently connected with what happened at the party to hold CRUK vicariously liable for his actions. Mr Belilk’s attendance at the party and his actions in lifting Mrs Shelburne had nothing to do with, and was not connected with, the work he did for CRUK at the institution. The Court made it clear however, that if the act had been committed by Mr Bielik while he was working then in all likelihood CRUK would have been found to be vicariously liable.
What this means for employers
This case has been well received by employers as it imposes sensible limits on when employers may be held to be vicariously liable for the actions of individuals at social events. The Court recognised that imposing vicarious liability upon an employer in this sort of situation would have “wider social consequences” and made the point that it would be unfair to hold employers liable for events that they are expected to organise and from which they do not necessarily derive any benefit themselves.
Whilst employers may view the decision in this case as good news, they still need to be aware of the risks associated with social events and should take appropriate steps to protect themselves from possible claims. In this regard, employers need to make sure staff are aware of the standards of behaviour expected of them at these kind of events and of the potential consequences where individuals fall short of those standards i.e. disciplinary action. If not already in place, it is a good idea to implement a specific policy that deals with workplace social events and to tie this in with the organisation’s disciplinary policy to avoid any confusion.