Supreme Court vicarious liability decisions to hit law syllabuses

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By Katie King on

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.