How Does Vicarious Liability Work?

02 October 2018

Vicarious liability applies to a situation where an organisation or individual is held responsible for the actions of another. This can apply in any number of situations, where one person or organisation has a duty of care for the health and safety of another person. Vicarious liability usually applies where an employer is held responsible for the actions of another employee, where that employee's actions have caused injury to another employee. The law relating to vicarious liability has however been considerably extended over the years.

In the workplace, an employer could be held liable for the acts of one of their employees if these acts cause injury to another employee. Employers have a duty to take care of their employees, and that duty has been expanded considerably over the last century.

If an employee is injured because of the fault (negligence) of their employer – for example they slip on oil from a machine that has been leaking oil for some time and wasn't repaired, they will generally be able to bring a claim under the law relating to Employers' Liability. However, an employer can also be found to liable for the actions of one of their employees. This is known as vicarious liability and the law relating to this has been expanded by the courts in recent times to cover many different types of action by employees which cause a fellow worker to be injured.

Vicarious liability is best demonstrated by explaining some of the most significant cases where an employer has been found to be vicariously liable for the actions of another employee, which has caused one of their workers to be injured.

Employer Found Vicariously Liable for Employee's Death

In a landmark case back in 1937, a worker called Mr English was crushed by machinery when it was put into motion by another employee. His family then made a claim against the employer – Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd – for compensation. The employer claimed that Mr English's negligence had contributed to his own death, arguing that he should have made the other employee aware of his presence.

The House of Lords, however, ruled in favour of Mr English's family, confirming that the employer had a duty to provide a safe place of work to employees, and that this duty was non-delegable.

As such, when Mr English was injured because of the negligence of another employee, the employer was found to be vicariously liable, even though it was the employee who had caused the accident by putting the machinery in motion when they should not have done so.

The law has evolved since this ruling and the application of vicarious liability has continued to be expanded by the courts through a number of very different cases.

Prison Catering Manager Injured by Prisoner

In the case of Cox V The Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Mrs Cox was injured by a prisoner during the course of her employment as a catering manager with the MOJ. The prisoner was working in the prison kitchen when he dropped a sack of rice on Mrs Cox causing an injury to her back.

A claim was lodged with the MOJ alleging that they were liable for the actions of the prisoner and as such should compensate Mrs Cox for her injuries. The MOJ denied responsibility on the basis they did not employ the prisoner, so the relationship between them and the prisoner was not akin to an employer/employee relationship and as such they weren't responsible for his actions.

The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the MOJ were vicariously liable for the prisoner's actions. The Court explained that in certain circumstances, vicarious liability may be imposed outside the employment relationship. In this case, working in the kitchen was an integral part of the operation of a prison, in particular for the provision of meals to prisoners. Prisoners earned a nominal sum for the work that they did in the kitchen which bound them into closer relationships with the prison service. As such the MOJ was vicariously liable for the prisoner's actions.

Vicarious Liability for Independent Contractors

As a general rule, a party is not liable for the negligent actions of an independent contractor. In one case however, the Supreme Court found in favour of a claimant who suffered catastrophic injuries as a consequence of the negligence of an independent contractor. In this case, Woodland V Essex County Council, a school pupil in Essex was injured during a school swimming lesson at the local pool.

The council did not employ the instructor and lifeguard, but had contracted out the provision of swimming lessons to a private company Direct Swimming Services (DSS), who did employ them. They were on duty when the pupil got into difficulties but failed to act in time to prevent her suffering catastrophic brain injuries. DSS did not have sufficient insurance to cover the compensation payable.

The Supreme Court found that the local authority had a non-delegable duty of care so far as the welfare of children who attended one of its schools was concerned. Parents were legally obliged to entrust their child to the school's care and had no control over how the school delegated the duty of care to a third party. As the local authority could not delegate their duty of care to a third party (DSS), they were liable to pay compensation.

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