Ms Shelbourne was attending a Christmas party organised by her employer, Cancer Research UK (CRUK). Also in attendance was Mr Bielik, a researcher, who several witnesses confirmed was very drunk. Mr Bielik had lifted three women on the dance floor, without their consent, before lifting Ms Shelbourne. Mr Bielik then dropped Ms Shelbourne, causing her to seriously injure her back.
The High Court upheld the County Court's decision that CRUK were not vicariously liable for Mr Bielik's actions, due to there being an insufficient connection between his actions at the party and his role within the company as a researcher. Whilst the court was sympathetic to Ms Shelbourne's position, in restricting the doctrine of vicarious liability Mr Justice Lane commented that:-
"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 Sherbourne case provides employers with a helpful restriction to the scope of vicarious liability. The decision can be compared to Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited (2018) EWCA Civ 2214, the subject of a previous blog which can be read here. In Bellman, the English Court of Appeal ruled that the employer, Northampton Recruitment Limited, was vicariously liable for the actions of its managing director, Mr Major, when he assaulted an employee, Mr Bellman. The assault occurred at 3am following the company's Christmas party when a number of guests had gone on to a hotel for a drink. During an argument over work-related matters, Mr Major told off the staff. On being challenged by Mr Bellman, Mr Major assaulted him. Mr Bellman was knocked to the ground, sustaining a severe brain injury.
On reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal took into account (1) the nature of Mr Major's job; and (2) whether there was a sufficiently close connection between Mr Major's job and his wrongful conduct to render vicarious liability appropriate. Mr Major was the company's most senior employee, as its owner and managing director. Immediately prior to the assault, he was lecturing his staff on company matters shortly following a company event. Therefore, the court deemed there to be a sufficiently close connection between Mr Major's job and his drunken assault on another employee to render the company vicariously liable for his actions.
Nevertheless, each case has to be taken on its own facts and circumstances. The recent judgement in Shelbourne restricts the adoption of vicarious liability and confirms that employers are not deemed by courts as insurers for negligent acts carried out by their employees. However, they may be liable when a "close connection" can be proven between the employee's job - to be applied broadly - and the wrongful conduct.
Whilst several recent court decisions have expanded the reach of vicarious liability, this case provides a helpful limit as to its applicability.