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‘Punch-up’ case highlights perils of vicarious liability

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An employer’s vicarious liability for the acts of its employees has come under the spotlight again following the decision of the Court of Appeal in Gravil v Carroll [2008].

The court allowed an appeal from Gravil, holding Redruth Rugby Club to be vicariously liable after one of their players (Carroll) punched Gravil in the face during a match and caused him injury. Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees “during the course of their employment”.

According to international legal practice, Norton Rose LLP, the decision shows once again that the courts will interpret this phrase widely, extending beyond acts which an employee is instructed or authorised to perform to acts so closely connected with the employment that it would be fair and just to hold the employer vicariously liable.

Courts have held employers liable, for example, for acts of sexual abuse committed by a school warden on boys in his care, for an assault by a nightclub doorman on a member of the public, for the harassment of one employee by another and now, in Gravil, for the assault of a semi-professional rugby player on an opponent during a game.

Talking exclusively to HRZone.co.uk, Stephen Farrow, an associate in the employment team at Norton Rose, said: “It is vital that HR departments take all reasonable steps to prevent employees from engaging in unlawful conduct in order to be able to reduce the risk of such claims.

“An adequate equal opportunities policy should be in force and suitable training provided to employees to ensure that they are aware of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Employees need to be reminded that appropriate behaviour standards should be maintained both in and out of work and procedures put in place so that unacceptable behaviour is stopped and dealt with fairly as soon as it arises. Otherwise, employers could find themselves faced with a substantial damages claim if one of their employees errs.”

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Annie Hayes

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