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Employment Law Case Update: Sherbourne v Cancer Research UK

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Staff parties and team building exercises are a great way to create a strong bond between colleagues and reward employees for work well done. Whether it's an out-door activity or a meal out, it's important to conduct a thorough risk assessment to make sure anyone attending is being put at any risk.

Mrs Sherbourne was an employee of Cancer Research UK and attended CRUK’s Christmas party, held at its research institute. Prior to the event CRUK undertook a risk assessment to ensure nobody entered the laboratories after the party started. The assessment also considered other potential risks to employees such as uneven surfaces and games that had been provided.

Previous CRUK parties had taken place without incident, but on this occasion an accident occurred between Mrs Sherbourne and Mr Bielik. Mr Bielik, a visiting scientist who was not an employee of CRUK, had been drinking and attempted to pick up Mrs Sherbourne as they were dancing together. Unfortunately, Mr Bielik lost his balance and dropped Mrs Sherbourne and she sustained a serious back injury.

Mrs Sherbourne claimed against CRUK, alleging that CRUK had been negligent and vicariously liable for the injury. At first instance the county court rejected Mrs Sherbourne’s claims, so Mrs Sherbourne appealed to the High Court.

The High Court acknowledged that CRUK owed Mrs Sherbourne a duty of care but the issue in the case was the extent of that duty. The High Court relied on a ruling of the Court of Appeal when confirming that the duty of care is context dependent; this includes social settings with alcohol being served. The High Court held that CRUK’s risk assessment had been sufficient and that it was not required to produce a risk assessment dealing with potential incidents that may occur if someone who had been drinking alcohol caused an incident on the dance floor.

The High Court accepted that Mr Bielek’s relationship with CRUK was sufficient to give rise to vicarious liability. The issue in this case was whether there was a sufficient connection between the position in which Mr Bielek was employed and his conduct to make it right for CRUK to be held liable under principles of social justice.

The High Court held that the field of Mr Bielik’s activities was his research work with CRUK and took the view that this was not sufficiently connected with what happened to give rise to vicarious liability.

This case shows the fact-sensitive nature of claims involving vicarious liability. The decision in this case can be contrasted with a case we reported on earlier in the year - Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited - where the company was found to be vicariously liable for the actions of the Managing Director at their Christmas party. 


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.