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Violence at work – is the employer liable?

An employer is vicariously liable for the actions of its employees if something happens “in the course of employment”. However, it can be difficult to work out whether an employee’s actions are sufficiently closely connected to their employment to be treated as taking place “in the course of employment”. This issue was recently considered by the Court of Appeal in two different cases involving violence towards a colleague. Interestingly, the employer was found to be liable for the personal injury claim in one case but not the other.

Weddall v Barchester Healthcare Ltd

Mr Weddall was the deputy manager of a care home and telephoned an employee to ask if he was willing to cover a shift. The employee, Mr Marsh, was drunk and upset when he received the call and thought that Mr Weddall was mocking him. Mr Marsh cycled to the care home and violently attacked him. There was a gap of twenty minutes between Mr Marsh’s receiving the telephone call and the attack. The Court of Appeal found that the employer was not vicariously liable for Mr Marsh’s attach as his actions were separate and distinct from his employment. The assault happened to occur at the place of work, but was otherwise unconnected with Mr Marsh’s employment.

Wallbank v Wallbank Fox Designs Ltd

Mr Wallbank was managing director of Wallbank Fox Designs Ltd and told one of his employees, Mr Brown, to fix an error he had noticed in the manufacturing process. When Mr Brown did not reply, Mr Wallbank asked him to “come on”. Mr Brown then put his hand on Mr Wallbank’s face and threw him onto a table. In these circumstances, the Court of Appeal found that the employer was vicariously liable for Mr Brown’s actions because of the instantaneous nature of the reaction and its close connection with the employment in terms of when and where it happened.

The Court of Appeal decision is a good analysis of when an employer will be responsible for the actions of its employees.

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