Supreme Court vicarious liability decisions to hit law syllabuses

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Don’t you just love the living and breathing nature of the law?


Tort law syllabuses across the country are gearing up for a makeover after the highest court in the land finally gave two of its most long-awaited judgments.

It’s looking likely that LLB and GDL syllabuses will be affected by this morning’s landmark rulings, which have fundamentally shaped and expanded the key legal doctrine of vicarious liability.

The judgments in the cases of Cox v Ministry of Justice and Mohamud v Morrison Supermarkets look set to be added to a very long list of key tort law cases, alongside the likes of law student favourite Donoghue v Stevenson.

The cases deal with the potential reach of the classic tort law doctrine of vicarious liability. This holds that a party can be liable for the actions or omissions of someone else. The practical implications of this legal principle are most commonly seen in the workplace, where an employer can be held legally responsible for their employee’s behaviour, if it can be shown that this behaviour occurred in the course of their employment.

Crucially, the justices — namely Lady Hale and Lords Neuberger, Dyson, Reed and Toulson — have today extended the outreach of this legal principle by ruling that vicarious liability can exist even when there is no contract of employment.

This decision was born out of Cox — a case about the negligence of a prisoner working in the kitchen of HMP Swansea. The inmate dropped a 25kg bag of rice on to the claimant Ms Cox, who was working as the catering manager at the prison at the time. She was left with serious injuries, and claimed that the Prison Service and, by extension, the Ministry of Justice, was vicariously liable for the prisoner’s actions.

Clearly compelled by Robert Weir QC and Robert O’Leary, Cox’s counsel, the justices unanimously found for the claimant, dismissing the Ministry of Justice’s appeal.

And the same result was reached in the Mohamud ruling, a case that turned very much on its strange set of facts.

The claimant — who has since died, due to causes unrelated to the case — was assaulted in a Morrisons petrol station forecourt in Birmingham by an employee. It was reported that the staff member used racist language about Mr Mohamud, before punching and kicking him.

Joel Donovan QC and Adam Ohringer — instructed by the Bar Pro Bono Unit — argued that the employee should have been seen as “wearing the badge” of his employer, and that the multi-million pound business should be vicariously liable for the employee’s actions. Again, the court found in favour of the claimant, in a move that’s shocked the legal Twitterati.

This morning’s decisions are, unsurprisingly, a big deal for businesses. The justices have broadened the vicarious liability doctrine so as to ‘catch’ even more factual scenarios, so employers need to be on their toes.

But it’s not just employers that need to pay close attention to the rulings. Law students can expect to see Cox and Mohamud feature on their, soon to be revamped, tort law syllabuses.

Don’t assume it’s only next year’s curricula that will be impacted. It looks like the rulings may well interrupt current law school syllabuses as well.

Sorry law students, it looks like there’s about to be even more tort cases to learn.


Not Amused

Every extension of vicarious liability erodes the concept of personal responsibility.



It’s all insurance money. Who cares?



everyone who pays premiums and taxes (taking potential state-funding for accident compensation into account). If you aren’t currently paying for either, good luck to you.



Insurance companies and their advocates



“Personal responsibility” has little to do with the origin of a claim in the first place. Claimants need VL in order to access the deeper pockets of the employer. It seems employers will continue to bear the burden in lieu of well-funded state victims’ funds.



So, because their “pockets are deeper” they should have to foot the bill? Since when did legal liability become means-tested?!



Since 50 years ago in various commonwealth nations.



Open your eyes, dear one. Money is at the heart of every tort. People don’t bring a claim for the laughs


Diligent Advocate

Exactly, “never sue a man of straw” and “the doors of the civil courts are open to all, just as the doors of the Ritz Hotel are”. Just two pseudo-maxims which come to mind.


There is no reduction of personal responsibility but alternative remedy for the victim.


Helpful Article on the subject



Thanks Legal Cheek for wasting 10 minutes of my life reading those 2 judgments.

Cox merely follows the UKSC judgment in the Christian Brothers case, applying it to the prison regime, and upholding the Court of Appeal judgment in the same case.

Mohamud merely follows the HL judgment in Lister v Hedley Hall.

No “fundamental shaping and expansion” of the law of vicarious liability as far as I can see. In Mohamud the law lords expressly say the law does not require updating.


Not Amused

Please use “supremes” not Law Lords.

They insisted on the change and I for one agree to honour the marked shift in quality.



Ten minutes? I didn’t know IBMs Watson could post comments… We will all be out of a job soon enough



Agreed. Lord Dyson really sticks the boot in to the suggested “representative capacity” test or any departure from Lister.


Lord Lyle of the Isles

In my entire career I only had one case on four squares with the case ad infra. I was so excited. Lost it. Clients were pre Paleoanthropological sub species hitherto unknown to medical science. I was gutted.


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