Supreme Court rules on vicarious Liability

Two recent ruling by the Supreme Court show the increasingly varied circumstances in which employers may be held vicariously liable for the acts of a third party.

It is well established that the employment relationship can give rise to vicarious liability, meaning that employers may be held liable where an act committed by an employee is so closely connected with the employment relationship that it would be fair, just and reasonable to impose liability. Liability can arise regardless of whether or not the employer has, itself, committed a wrong.

The cases of Cox v Ministry of Justice [2016] UKSC 10 and Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc [2016] UKSC 11 demonstrate that an employer can still be found vicariously liable where there is no employment relationship or where an employee has committed a violent assault apparently unconnected to the employment relationship.

Cox v Ministry of Justice

In this case Mrs Cox worked as a catering manager for a prison. As part of her role she instructed a number of prisoners to move kitchen supplies to a store room. During the move, one of the prisoners accidently dropped a sack of rice on to her back, injuring her. Despite the prisoner not working under a contract of employment, the Supreme Court found the Ministry of Justice to be vicariously liable for the prisoner’s negligence.

The Court considered the following factors to be most relevant in determining whether or not it would be fair, just and reasonable to impose liability in the absence of a contract of employment:-

  1. The act was committed as a result of an activity being undertaken on behalf of the Defendant;
  2. The action was part of the business activity of the Defendant;
  3. By requiring the individual to carry out the activity the Defendant had created the risk of an accident occurring.

Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc

This case concerned an employee working at one of the Defendant’s petrol stations. When Mr Mohamud approached the employee to ask if he could print some documents from a USB stick the employee refused his request, told him to leave and never come back and subsequently punched Mr Mohamud in the left temple.

The claim for vicarious liability against the employer was initially dismissed on the grounds that there was an insufficiently close connection between the act of violence and the employment relationship. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision and held the employer vicariously liable for the actions of the employee.

In determining whether there was a sufficiently close connection, the Court considered the following:

  1. What activities had been entrusted by the employer to the employee;
  2. Was there a sufficient connection between the role held by the employee and the wrongful conduct to make it fair, just and reasonable to impose liability on the employer?

In its judgment, the Court highlighted the fact that it was the employee’s job to respond to customer requests. The violent act was held to be closely connected to his job as there was an unbroken sequence of events. The Court also considered the fact that the employee had told Mr Mohamud to leave and never come back to be relevant, as this was an order directly related to the business of the employer.

Vicarious liability continues to pose a significant threat to employers. The above cases demonstrate the wide range of circumstances in which liability can be imposed and highlight the importance of employers taking steps to mitigate such risks.