Vicarious liability – when, and how far, can responsibility be extended?
A recently reported Supreme Court case considered the plight of a claimant who was physically and emotionally abused by one of two foster carers and sexually abused by the other. Concluding the case, Armes –v– Nottinghamshire County Council, the judges decided by a majority to extend the doctrine of vicarious liability. This doctrine states that an employer – in this case a local authority – is liable for the negligence of employees during the period of their employment. In the past, courts have been reluctant to allow cases where an employee is considered to be on “a frolic of their own” and not undertaking the duties for which they are employed.
More recently, vicarious liability has been extended to hold an employer liable for criminal actions undertaken by an employee, as in the case of a supermarket employee who committed violent assault while employed as a petrol station cashier, even though the attack occurred outside of the cash office and on the forecourt..
In the Armes case, the court ruled it fair, just, and reasonable to extend vicarious liability, on the part of a local authority, effectively holding Nottinghamshire County Council responsible for the acts – even deliberate, illegal acts – of foster parents towards a foster child. Furthermore, the court’s ruling was made despite the absence of any fault on the part of the local authority, although the court did not accept the council was liable on the basis of a non-delegable duty.
In a separate, earlier case dealing with delegated duty, a local authority was recently found liable under such a non-delegable duty when a school trip to a swimming pool caused injury to a child. In its defence, the local authority attempted to claim that the duty of care had been passed to swimming pool staff; the court ruled this was a non-delegable duty.
Recently, Courts have generally been reluctant to find against local authorities, with public policy concerns heightened by restricted budgets. However this finding is likely to have a dramatic effect on the need to “police” the work of foster carers which will be difficult given the merits of not interfering in a family domestic environment. This may have an adverse effect on potential foster carers interest in providing their vital and challenging work..
Garry Sleet. Personal Injury department
General, George Ide, Personal Injury Blog