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Vicarious liability not a “one-way street” for accident victims

Christmas party: “Health and safety gone mad”

Assessing the demands of social justice in cases involving vicarious liability is “not a one-way street” for accident victims, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice Lane said ensuring adequate compensation for victims needed to be “balanced against the wider social consequences” which might ensue from imposing vicarious liability.

Ruling on a case in which a woman sued Cancer Research UK (CRUK) for serious back injuries after she was picked up and dropped by a Cambridge scientist at a work Christmas party, Lane J said the charity’s motivation for holding the party was not “primarily or even significantly, to derive a benefit for its operations”.

The judge said the recorder, who rejected Sandra Shelbourne’s claim at first instance, was not “required in law” to find that the party was an event where staff were “encouraged by CRUK to engage in alcohol-fuelled intimacy”.

Lane J said the accident was “extremely unfortunate” and the victim deserved the court’s sympathy.

“However, 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.”

The court heard in Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019] EWHC 842 (QB) [1] that a Christmas party was held at the Cambridge Research Institute of CRUK in December 2012.

James Hadfield, head of the genomics department, organised it and completed a risk assessment, his main concern being to prevent people returning to the laboratories during or after the party. Two additional security staff were present to prevent this happening.

Robert Beilik, a visiting scientist employed by Cambridge University and not CRUK, attended the party along with Ms Shelbourne, an animal technician at the institute.

The parties agreed that Mr Beilik had been drinking and had successfully lifted up and put down on the dancefloor three other women before the incident with Ms Shelbourne. Although it was without their consent, none of the three women complained.

At around 10.30pm, Mr Beilik attempted to lift Ms Shelbourne off the ground, lost his balance and dropped her, leaving her with a serious back injury.

Mr Recorder Catford at Southend County Court held that CRUK was not liable in negligence for the accident and not vicariously liable for Mr Beilik’s actions.

On negligence, Lane J said there was “some merit” in counsel for CRUK’s categorisation of the case as “health and safety gone mad”, although he would not associate himself with the “precise way” it had been expressed.

The judge said the “clear thrust” of Ms Shelbourne’s argument was that, once it was established that a party was happening where alcohol was provided, which could cause people to behave in inappropriate ways, there needed to be a written declaration from attendees that they would not behave inappropriately; a risk assessment covering “eventualities stemming from all such forms of inappropriate behaviour”; trained staff at the event and special training for those providing the risk assessment.

Lane J said that “as a matter of common sense” this could not be right.

“The suggestion that a social gathering of this kind cannot be adequately monitored by those who are involved in the gathering, but only by observers who remain dispassionately detached, is an invitation to set the standard of care unreasonably high.

“It is also relevant to observe in this regard that, prior to the incident involving the appellant, neither she nor her husband (who was also present at the party) considered that Robert Beilik should be reported, even though both had encountered him in a boisterous mood.”

Lane J held that Ms Shelbourne’s case involved “viewing the CRUK 2012 Christmas party as akin to a nightclub where there is an ever-present risk of violence”.

He agreed with the recorder that reasonable steps had been taken by CRUK in organising the party, no duty of care was breached, and the negligence claim was not made out.

On vicarious liability, Lane J concluded that the recorder was right to find that Mr Beilik’s field of activities was his research work at CRUK, a field “not sufficiently connected with what happened at the party as to give rise to vicarious liability”.

He dismissed the appeal.