The Christmas party season will soon be upon us again.  Designed to be fun for staff the office party can be a minefield for employers particularly when alcohol is provided and revellers become over enthusiastic on the dance floor.  A recent case looked at the extent of an employer’s duty and will give employers hope that the party should go on.


Mrs Shelbourne attended the Cancer Research UK Christmas party at her workplace where alcohol was served. The charity had undertaken a risk assessment which focused on party goers not returning to the research laboratories during the evening and 2 security staff were engaged to prevent this. The risk assessment also looked at tripping hazards and the games that were to be played. There had been no issues at previous Christmas parties.

During the party Mrs Shelbourne was physically lifted up on the dancefloor and then dropped.  She sustained a spinal injury.  Mrs Shelbourne claimed that Cancer Research UK had inadequately organised and supervised the party and that they were vicariously liable for the actions of the man who caused her injuries.  The court disagreed and said that CRUK were not vicariously liable in this case.

Vicarious liability

In order to ascertain whether CRUK were show vicariously liable for the acts of Mr Beliek the court looked at:

  • the function or fields entrusted to Mr Beliek;
  • whether there was sufficient connection between the position in which Mr Beliek was employed and the wrongful act. This also involves looking at the requirements of social justice and whether the individual misused his position in causing the injury and because of this the employer should be held responsible.

The Court decided that Mr Beliek’s field of activities was his research work and that this was not sufficiently connected with the party so as to give rise to vicarious liability for CRUK.

We reported another Christmas party case last year where the court made a different decision.  In Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Ltd the managing director of the company assaulted an employee at an impromptu post party drink in a hotel when his authority was challenged.  That court made it clear that it was not the fact that there had been an office party that made the company liable for the acts of Mr Bellman.  The fact he was controlling proceedings and reacted to a challenge to his role as MD meant that it was fair and just that the Company should be vicariously liable for his actions.  For more details see Freeths article Staff Christmas Parties – avoid a nasty hangover for the business.

Social justice

It was refreshing to see how the interests of social justice in this case defined the limits of vicarious liability. The court rejected Mrs Shelbourne’s argument that the alcohol fuelled revelry and setting aside of normal boundaries was authorised by CRUK for its own benefit as it stood to gain from the enhancement of employee morale.  The Court felt this was going too far and in fact the party was just what employees expected an employer to do for them at Christmas not something done for the benefit of CRUK.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.