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Vicarous Liability - Violent Employees

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[Thanks to Louise Jones of Temple Garden Chambers for preparing this case summary]

In Weddall v Barchester HealthcareWallbank v Wallbank Fox Designs Ltd, the Court of Appeal considered the concept of vicarious liability in circumstances of an attack on an employee by another employee, where the attack was a violent response to a lawful instruction of the employer.

The Court explored the key authorities on vicarious liability, including Lister v Helsey Hall [2001], which establish that there must be sufficient connection between what the employee is required to do and unlawful violence towards a third party. The Court identified the importance of the closeness of the connection between the wrongful act and the employment. Each case must be determined by reference to its own facts, although this determination may necessarily involve a 'value judgment'.

Consideration of the closeness of the connection between the wrongful act and the employment produced different results in the two cases:

  • In Mr Weddall's case, the employee, who had refused on the phone to work a night shift and then had turned up at his workplace and assaulted the claimant, was acting personally for his own reasons, and the underlying instruction was no more than a pretext for an act of violence unconnected with his work. The employer could not be held vicariously liable.
  • In Mr Wallbank's case, the employee was undertaking a task central to his employment, during which Mr Wallbank sought to work with him, in the course of which the employee threw Mr Wallbank onto a table, causing him injury. The Court was persuaded that the employer should bear vicarious liability for the spontaneous force by which the employee reacted to the instruction given to him.