April 12, 2019

Vicarious liability: Employers given a lift following Christmas party injury decision

The Court of Appeal recently upheld a first instance decision that Cancer Research UK was not vicariously liable for an injury suffered by an employee at a Christmas party. The employee suffered a serious back injury after being lifted up and then dropped by a colleague.

Dismissing the appeal, Mr Justice Lane stated that vicarious liability "is not a journey down a one-way street" for claimants when seeking damages.  There must be a careful consideration of the "wider social consequences which may ensue from achieving this result [the award of compensation] through the imposition of vicarious liability."

The decision provides clarification for employers on the scope of their potential liability where they are involved in organising workplace social events.

Background

In 2012, the Genomics department of Cancer Research UK ("CR UK") had organised a Christmas party, open only to employees of CR UK and their guests.  The Claimant, an animal technician, attended the party as did Mr Robert Beilik, a visiting scientist.  Mr Bellik was not employed by CR UK but was entitled to attend the party.

During the course of the evening, Mr Beilik lifted up and put down 3 other individuals without their consent, and when doing the same to the Claimant, he lost his balance, dropping and injuring the Claimant.

The Claimant made a claim against CR UK alleging that they were vicariously liable for Mr Beilik's actions.  At first instance, the Judge held that CR UK was not liable in negligence for the Claimant's injury, nor was it vicariously liable for the actions of Mr Beilik.

The Claimant appealed.

Court of Appeal

The Claimant alleged the first instance decision was incorrect and that the Judge has erred in his conclusions in negligence and vicarious liability.

The most authoritative statement of the current legal position for vicarious liability is set out in the complementary cases of Mohamud and Cox, which set out the relevant tests for imposing vicarious liability on employers.

The first instance decision found that the position of Mr Beilik was enough to satisfy the test from Cox – in that that there was a relationship between him and CR UK.  This was not challenged by the Defendant as part of a cross-appeal.

Therefore, the appeal was asked to consider the tests laid down in Mohamud namely:

  1. What functions or "field of activities" have been entrusted by CR UK to Mr Beilik - and this question should be addressed broadly; and
  2. Was there a sufficient connection between the position in which he was employed and his wrongful conduct to make it right for the employer to be held liable for reasons of social justice?

The Claimant sought to argue that the relevant 'field of activities' of Mr Beilik included interacting "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 [the Defendant] for its own benefit, since it stood to gain from the enhancement of its employees' morale".

That argument was rejected by Lane J, who held that the Defendant was only "responding to the expectation of its members of staff that this is what an employer does for them at Christmas".  

This was not a case where the Claimant was at work when Mr Beilik committed the alleged tort or where his 'field of activities' was sufficiently connected with what happened at the party so as to give rise to vicarious liability.

The Court was keen to emphasise that these circumstances were different to those in Bellman v Northampton Recruitment where a company was held to be vicariously liable for an assault committed by its managing director on an employee following their Christmas party.  

Mr Justice Lane stated that in that case, "it was the [managing director's] control of proceedings, at all material times, and his reaction to what he perceived to be a challenge to his authority as managing director, which made the company vicariously liable for his actions".

Outcome

Mr Justice Lane concluded that the first instance was correct and that Mr Bellik's field of activities "was not sufficiently concerned with what happened at the party to give rise to vicarious liability."

The appeal was dismissed.

What can we learn?

  • The decision offers a positive decision for employers and their liability insurers following a number of decisions, such as Bellman where vicarious liability had been imposed in an increasing number of situations, including work-organised social events.
  • Furthermore, the commentary of Mr Justice Lane indicates that the Courts are unwilling to impose vicarious liability upon an employer where there are "wider social consequences" – i.e. making employers liable for incidents at events which they are 'expected' to organise, such as Christmas parties, which do not necessarily provide a benefit to the employer itself.
  • This decision shows that Bellman will be seen as a case which turned on its own particular facts. It is apparent that the Court of Appeal in that matter focused on what led to, and motivated, the assault and the context in which the party had occurred, and Mr Justice Lane emphasised this in his decision.