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Boundaries on the dance floor – where does vicarious liability end and personal responsibility begin?

26th April 2019

Vicarious liability is the legal obligation on an employer to be responsible for the negligence or other misdeed of an employee if that action occurred during the course of the employee’s work or was sufficiently linked to it.

The UK’s law courts have regularly reviewed the boundaries of vicarious liability and it can be useful to consider a recent High Court case relating to an incident that occurred at a Christmas party. In the case of Shelbourne .v. Cancer Research UK (2019) the claimant, an employee of the defendant, suffered injuries when, during a Christmas party organised by the defendant, she was lifted from the dance floor by a visiting scientist who was working with the defendant on a joint collaboration project. The scientist lost his balance and dropped the claimant – sadly the claimant suffered a serious back injury.

The claimant’s claim failed to show that the defendant was negligent – the court ruled that the defendant had undertaken a sufficient risk assessment before the event and taken reasonable steps to ensure that the guests attending the party were reasonably safe. The case therefore turned on whether the defendant was vicariously liable for the actions of the visiting scientist.

Although he was not directly employed by the defendant, the visiting scientist’s work was sufficiently integral to the defendant’s business for the defendant potentially to be held vicariously liable for his actions. However, in making his decision, the High Court’s Mr Justice Lane considered the judgement made in an earlier case in which the claimant was assaulted by the defendant’s managing director at a function (Bellman .v. Northampton Recruitment Ltd.). In that case, the court held that the managing director had acted within his managerial remit. Mr Justice Lane contrasted this position with that of the visiting scientist and his research activities for the defendant, concluding that the incident leading to the claimant’s injury during the party was not sufficiently connected with his field of work as to give rise to vicarious liability on behalf of Cancer Research UK. Strangely, the claimant’s representatives did not pursue an injury claim against the scientist as an independent defendant.

The fluidity of the boundaries of legal concepts, such as vicarious liability, shows the importance of seeking help from experienced legal specialists – for advice and support in such matters, contact the George Ide team on 01243 786668 or email us at info@georgeide.co.uk.

Garry Sleet. Senior Litigation Executive

General, George Ide, News, Personal Injury Blog
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