Christmas Parties – are employers liable for the behaviour of others?

  • David Harris
  • Monday, December 16th, 2019

At this time of year when office Christmas drinks are happening here’s a quick reminder of the potential for employers accruing liability.

In Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK, the Claimant was physically lifted up, and dropped by a visiting scientist, when on the dance floor at the Christmas party at her workplace. She sustained a spinal injury. She claimed against her employer alleging (a) inadequate organisation / supervision of the party; and (b) that the employer was vicariously liable for the actions of the individual who lifted the claimant. The Claimant was unsuccessful at first instance and on appeal.  So it seems employers would not automatically be liable for all high jinks at their Christmas Parties, although each case would be decided on its facts.

You can read more about this case below in the case summary.

Case Summary

The Claimant sought to argue that the relevant ‘field of activities’ was to ‘interact with fellow partygoers in alcohol-infused revelry, leading to the setting aside of the ordinary boundaries of social interaction’. The Claimant argued all of this was authorised by the employer, Cancer Research UK for its own benefit since it stood to gain from the enhancement of its employee’s morale.

The Claimant argued that if this were the field of activities, it was evident there was a sufficiently close connection between that field and the scientist wrongful conduct in relation to the Claimant.

Mr Justice Lane, on appeal, took the view that in the Claimant’s scenario, it is the employer’s self-interest in organising the office or works Christmas party that is key. Mr Justine Lane did not consider this description of the average office or works Christmas party is ‘one that the archetypal reasonable person would recognise as representing reality. As a general matter, it overstates the position of the employer and, conversely, seriously understates the motivation and autonomy of those attending’.

Mr Justice Lane took the view that ‘the requirement to address the field of activities “broadly” means what it says. It is not an acknowledgement that the concept has no boundaries. It is, rather, a direction to judges to look beyond the question of actual authority and examine “a wider range of conduct that acts done in furtherance of [the employee’s] employment (Mohamud, paragraph 22)’

He went on to find that the Recorder had not misconstrued the evidence on this matter or that, if he had examined the evidence correctly, he would have been required in law to find that the 2012 Christmas party was an event ‘held for the benefit of Cancer Research UK at which employees (including the scientist) were encouraged by Cancer Research UK to engage in alcohol-fuelled intimacy’. The Appeal was dismissed.

Whilst he commented it was an extremely unfortunate accident, Mr Justice Lane reminded us that ‘the ascertainment of what social justice requires, which lies at the heart of the law on vicarious liability, is not a journey down a one-way street. The desirability of enabling those who have suffered injury at the hands of others to recover adequate financial compensation needs to be balanced against the wider social consequences which may ensue from achieving this result through the imposition of vicarious liability’.

Mr Justice Lane was sceptical of the Appellant’s attempt to widen the ‘field of activities’ too much in this case. He has emphasised the need to ensure an assessment of the ‘field of activities’ is kept firmly within the bounds of reality. Whilst Mohamud allows us to look beyond the question of actual authority to explore a wider range of conduct when considering the ‘field of activities’ issue, this exercise does have limits.