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Are employers responsible for ‘horseplay’ at work?

February 10, 2022
Employment Law

If your employee injures someone whilst engaging in ‘horseplay’ at work, are you legally responsible for their actions? This is the question at the heart of the recent case of Chell v Tarmac Cement.

The facts

Mr Heath worked for Tarmac. He was based at a quarry just outside Shrewsbury. Also working at this site was the Claimant, Mr Chell. Mr Chell worked for a different company called Roltec Engineering. By all accounts, relations between Tarmac and Roltec employees were not particularly cordial.

As part of what was described as a ‘practical joke’, Mr Heath placed an exploding pellet near where Mr Chell was working and proceeded to hit it with a hammer. The resulting noise from the blast was so loud as to cause Mr Chell to suffer hearing loss and tinnitus in his right ear.

When Mr Chell commenced legal proceedings against Tarmac, the question arose as to whether the company was legally responsible (‘vicariously liable’, as lawyers would put it) for the injury the Claimant had suffered.

The decision

When Mr Chell’s case was heard by both the County Court and the High Court, it was unsuccessful. Undeterred, he took his claim to the Court of Appeal.

Having listened to lawyers on both side, three appeal court judges unanimously agreed that the County Court and High Court had made the right decision. For an employer to be held responsible, the Court of Appeal observed the central importance of deciding whether there is a sufficient connection between the alleged wrongful act and the employment relationship itself. In essence, was the act done in the course of Mr Heath’s employment with Tarmac? In this case, the Court was satisfied that it was not. Although the injury occurred when both Mr Chell and Mr Heath were at work, Mr Heath’s actions were otherwise unrelated to his employment; they were not authorised, permitted or condoned by Tarmac and they were not performed in the ordinary course of his employment. As a result, Tarmac was not liable for the injury caused.

An interesting decision…

This outcome is certainly interesting. However, we should be slow to place too much emphasis on it.  After all, cases of this nature tend to be very fact-sensitive. So whilst it is fair to say that an employer will not always be responsible for the wrongful acts of its employees, this does nothing to reduce the importance of employers carefully managing the risks to health and safety that arise within the workplace.

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