If one employee injures another whilst at work, is the employer responsible?
This is a question that we are often asked by clients who attend our training courses and are learning about the tort of negligence and Vicarious Liability.
What is Vicarious Liability?
When one employee injures another at work, the person who is injured may make a claim for compensation and the solicitors will refer to the legal term “Vicarious Liability”. Vicarious liability loosely means indirect liability. It is most commonly used in workplace accident claims, when employers become liable for an injury that one employee causes to another whilst at work; this includes injuries during normal work, when an employee makes mistakes, misuses equipment or fails to follow instructions.
What about when an employee is injured whilst playing pranks?
Vicarious Liability can arise when employees play practical jokes on each other whilst at work and someone is injured as a result. Often, the injured employee will make the claim through their organisation’s Employer’s Liability Insurance as the employer has a general duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees, and to provide supervision. However, an interesting case has recently ruled that not all injuries caused when employees are messing around will automatically be eligible for claims under Vicarious Liability.
Vicarious Liability Cases
Meeta Patel attempted to claim £58,000 compensation from Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust after a workplace injury where she damaged her lower spine and coccyx. Her colleague (Rashid Khan) deliberately pulled her chair away as a prank when she started to sit down at her workstation in August 2012. Ms Patel claimed the NHS trust was indirectly liable for her colleague’s “act of folly”.
However, Judge Heather Baucher disagreed and dismissed the case on 13 October 2017 at the Central London County Court; she decided that Mr Khan was “acting in a purely private capacity, unconnected with his work” and therefore the employer could not be held responsible. Mr Khan admitted that he had no reason to move Ms Patel’s chair and it was not a malicious act.
Is this fair?
You may be wondering at this stage if this was a fair decision, or if it was an isolated case, and does this actually constitute a workplace accident? There are a number of similar type cases where one employee is injured by another whilst playing pranks at work. These are normally included as workplace injuries when monitoring accident statistics but are sometimes seen differently when legal specialists begin reviewing the events under the tort of negligence, and whether Vicarious Liability applies.
Another case that had more serious consequences was in 2015 when the Court of Appeal decided that Commercial Body works was not vicariously liable for the injuries sustained by their employee (Paul Graham). Mr Graham’s supervisor had noticed his team messing around in the past but had not deemed their actions to be sufficiently serious to warrant intervention. This was a bad decision, because a work colleague sprayed Mr Graham’s overall with a highly flammable liquid and then lit it with a cigarette lighter, causing serious burns. When at court, Mr Graham claimed that his co-worker’s act of negligence had occurred in the “course of employment”, that the employer was therefore vicariously responsible, and that he was entitled to worker’s compensation; but the court disagreed.
Injury at work rights – Taking action
So, what should an employer do when they notice that their workers are playing pranks, messing around or acting in otherwise inappropriate ways? And what are workers’ rights to workers’ compensation if they were injured during horseplay-type behaviour?
Clearly, managers need to consider many things to maintain a healthy balance between a workplace that is enjoyable (even fun) as well as professional. This includes issues such as:
- Are any company policies and procedures being breached?
- What are the risks if the prank goes wrong?
- Have any colleagues felt threatened, uncomfortable or bullied by their colleagues’ “playfulness”?
- What potential damage to the organisation’s reputation would there be if such pranks were reported on social media etc?
- To what extent does horseplay / playing of pranks etc interfere with production and work time?
Clearly there is never a clear-cut decision and much depends on individual circumstances of each case, as well as the civil law goal-posts changing as new legal precedents are set. It is important that workers can enjoy a healthy balance of working safely whilst enjoying some banter during the day without risk of injury at work.
These cases show how quickly and easily it can go wrong when staff are being “playful”, and with serious consequences. A simple method to mitigate this potential is to have clear guidelines on what is acceptable and not acceptable at work.
If you would like a closer look at your company’s policies and procedures regarding such issues, why not give us call us on 01622 717700 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll help you to establish a safe policy within your workplace to prevent similar events occurring.