When is an Employer Vicariously Liable for the Actions of its Employees?

In Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets plc the Supreme Court considered whether a supermarket should be held vicariously liable for an employee’s unprovoked violent assault on a customer.

The employee, Mr Khan, worked in one of their petrol kiosks. He was verbally abusive to a customer and then pursued him out of the kiosk where he punched and kicked him to the ground. Despite the unprovoked and violent nature of his acts, and the fact that his role did not involve a clear possibility of confrontation or violence, the Supreme Court found that there was a sufficiently close connection between the assault and the employee’s job of attending to customers, such that the employer should be held vicariously liable for the victim’s personal injury claim.

In Cox v Ministry of Justice the Supreme Court considered whether the Ministry of Justice was vicariously liable for the negligence of a prisoner who, while working in the prison kitchens, had dropped a sack of rice causing injury to an employee of the prison.

The Ministry of Justice argued that compulsory prison work did not give rise to a relationship akin to employment and that they should not be liable. In a unanimous decision, and following previous authorities in this area, the Court demonstrated that vicarious liability can extend beyond the traditional employment relationship.  In principle a relationship is capable of giving rise to vicarious liability where an individual carries on activities for the defendant’s benefit as an integral part of its business, and where the defendant, in assigning those activities to the individual, has created a risk of the tort being committed.

These cases highlight that employers can be held liable for the actions of individuals working for them even in cases where those actions are unauthorised or out of their control. Although this is not good news for employers, having a strong focus on training, with clear rules on acceptable conduct in the workplace will place you in a better position to defend claims such as this.

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