Vicarious liability and its extent has been examined recently in two English cases. The claimant in Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK [2019] EWHC 842 (QB) sought damages after she was injured by a drunken partygoer at a Christmas party organised by her employers. A visiting scientist, who was not employed by the defendant, but worked in its laboratories under its supervision, had dropped the claimant while trying to lift her off the dance floor. At trial, the claimant argued that her employer had been negligent in its pre-party risk assessment and in relation to the security arrangements at the event, or was vicariously liable for the actions of the partygoer.

The court held that, although the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimant, this had not been breached. In addition, the defendant was not vicariously liable because the scientist's behaviour was outside the “field of activities” entrusted to him. His field of activities was his laboratory work, which was not sufficiently connected with his conduct at the party to establish vicarious liability. The claimant’s subsequent appeal was unsuccessful.

In Brayshaw v Partners of Apsley Surgery [2018] EWHC 3286 (QB) the claimant had suffered numerous physical and mental health problems over many years. A locum GP at her surgery had spoken to her during one telephone conversation and had gone on to introduce the claimant to his faith, church and Christian practices. When the claimant's relationship with the locum and his wife deteriorated, she alleged that she had suffered psychiatric harm as a result of the religious practices and doctrines that the locum had imposed on her. The claimant argued that, as the locum's services had been engaged by the defendant, the surgery was vicariously liable.

The claimant was partially successful in that the court held that the locum had been negligent in relation to her mental health, but that the surgery was not vicariously liable. The locum was not an employee – his services were engaged at specific times for specific defined purposes. Following the initial telephone consultation, the locum's negligent behaviour occurred away from surgery and promotion of his religious beliefs could not be seen as an activity undertaken on the surgery's behalf. The locum's actions were not part of business activity of the defendants, which was to provide medical treatment to patients. The claimant has appealed and the decision on that appeal is awaited.