Employer not liable for injuries of staff member ‘dropped on Christmas party dancefloor’

Court rejects charity worker’s £300,000 claim as ‘health and safety gone mad’

Employer not liable for injuries of staff member ‘dropped on Christmas party dancefloor’

A charity worker has lost a £300,000 compensation claim she filed for back injuries she sustained after she was lifted up and subsequently dropped at a workplace Christmas party.

The High Court ruled a payout in such circumstances could be seen as “health and safety gone mad” and could discourage employers from planning events for their staff.

Sandra Shelbourne, who worked as an animal technician for Cancer Research UK, sued the charity after suffering “devastating” back injuries she claims were sustained after she was “manhandled” at the charity’s 2012 Christmas party by a visiting Cambridge University scientist who had been working with the organisation. 

She claimed Cancer Research UK, her employer at the time, was responsible for the behaviour of Robert Bielik, the visiting scientist, who was intoxicated at the party. 

Her lawyer told the court Bielik was “an accident waiting to happen” after he allegedly picked up three other women at the Christmas party before grabbing Shelbourne, and his behaviour “gave rise to a duty on the part of her employers to intervene”.

The tribunal heard that at around 10.30pm, Shelbourne was on the dance floor when Bielik attempted to lift her off the ground. In doing so, he lost his balance and dropped Shelbourne, resulting in her sustaining a serious back injury. 

Shelbourne told the court she was unable to return to work because of her injury in the six months following the incident. 

She brought proceedings against Cancer Research UK, which resulted in a hearing at Southend County Court in January 2018. 

While Judge Catford, who presided over the initial hearing, did find that Bielik was “inebriated” and dropped Shelbourne after he picked her up without her consent, this would have made him personally liable for damages for trespass to the person and negligence – however, he was not being sued by her.

He ruled she had no grounds to claim against Cancer Research UK on the basis of negligence or vicarious liability because the accident was not reasonably foreseeable. 

Shelbourne appealed the ruling in December 2018 on the basis that the court had erred in law, both in its conclusions on liability in negligence and in relation to the vicarious liability of Cancer Research UK for her injury. 

Judge Lane, who presided over the appeal in the High Court, said Shelbourne deserved sympathy, but while Bielik was “clearly liable” for the incident, it would go against common sense for the charity to be blamed.

He agreed with the idea that the average person would consider the strict policing of Christmas parties as “some version of health and safety gone mad”: an idea put forward during the hearing by the charity’s representation. 

Lane said if Shelbourne won damages, any future work party involving alcohol would require “a written declaration signed by the attendees that they will not behave inappropriately, a risk assessment encompassing eventualities stemming from all forms of inappropriate behaviour, trained staff...and special training for those responsible for the provision of a risk assessment”.

He said too much red tape would discourage employers from holding parties for workers. 

Nikita Sonecha, employment associate at Royds Withy King, cautioned against employers assuming there were no health and safety concerns at parties, “even if there are no ladders to fall off or machines to get limbs caught in”.

“Aside from details such as dress code, time and venue, employers should make sure that in advance of such events, they take all reasonable steps to ensure good behaviour from their staff,” Sonecha said. “This may involve providing a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at such events and what kinds of behaviour are deemed to be unacceptable.”

She added employers should be aware they could be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at out-of-office organised events, if those actions were deemed to have been committed in the course of employment. 

A Cancer Research UK spokesperson said: “We welcome this latest ruling and will carefully review the findings. Cancer Research UK takes the welfare of staff and volunteers very seriously. We wish Ms Shelbourne well in her ongoing recovery.”

Shelbourne could not be reached for comment.