The responsibility of an employer for the negligent actions of their employee, which causes injury, falls within the legal doctrine of vicarious liability. Essentially, it sets out that if an employee has committed a negligent act in the course of their employment, the employer will be held accountable and responsible for any claim which arises as a result of it. Vicarious liability itself is not a principle which was created by the government in a legal statute it was developed by the judiciary upon hearing cases and was formulated by their decisions. In 1965 Lord Pearce observed that “the doctrine of vicarious liability has not grown from any very clear, logical or legal principle but from social convenience and rough justice”.
Over the years, the law has developed with consideration of how far this burden can be taken and what an employer can justifiably be responsible for. In establishing whether an employer can be held vicariously liable for their employee, it is often fairly straightforward to determine whether a negligent act has taken place, whether the negligence was caused by an employee and that it was this negligence which resulted in an injury being sustained. The most controversial area is whether the employee was acting in the course of their employment and there have been some interesting cases in this respect, in particular where the employee was committing a criminal or unlawful act.
Prior to 2001, it was generally considered that if an employee committed an illegal act, his employer could not be held accountable using the principle of vicarious liability. However, in 2001 the Courts examined this thoroughly and determined that the critical point is how close a connection there is between the employee’s duties and their wrongdoings. By examining cases in this way, the outlook changed and decisions started being made that an employer could be liable for their employee’s actions, even when the employee was carrying out an unauthorised, unlawful act.
This can be a tricky area but it is important for employers to be aware of the action they could be vulnerable too because of the behaviour of their employees. For example, if a supermarket employee pushing a cage of produce runs over a customer’s foot as they weren’t looking where they were going, it is fairly clear to see how an employer will be found vicariously liable for their actions – the employee committed a negligent act whilst in the course of his employment. However, it would be less obvious that an employer could be vicariously liable for an employee bouncer who was involved in an altercation with a customer, returned home to retrieve a knife before returning to stab the customer, but the Courts decided that they were. This case demonstrates how far the Courts have now gone in this respect albeit they will still treat each case on its own merits. Certainly, it is something that employers should take account of as they could find themselves facing a claim for something one of their employees has done even though it may appear to have little to do with them.
Harris Fowler has a team of specialist personal injury solicitors who can advise anyone who has suffered injury as a result of employees’ negligent actions. Free and friendly legal advice is available on 0800 213 214.
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