Court of Appeal rules that employer is not liable for injuries caused by practical joke
In a 2020 case, Chell v Tarmac Cement and Lime Ltd, the Court of Appeal supported the County Court’s decision that an employer was not liable for the injury caused to a worker by one of its employees playing a practical joke.
Tension between workers
Chell, a site fitter, was employed by RE Ltd whose services were contracted out to Tarmac Cement and Lime Ltd (TCL Ltd) at one of its quarry sites. TCL Ltd employed its own fitters but used external workers who, in this case, were supplied by RE Ltd.
Tensions had built between these external workers and TCL Ltd’s own employees, who thought their jobs were in jeopardy. Chell raised the issue with his supervisor, who then raised it with TCL Ltd, but he continued to work on the site.
Practical joke gone wrong
A few weeks after Chell raised his concerns with his supervisor, one of TCL Ltd’s employees, H, decided to play a prank on him. H put some pellet targets onto a workbench near C’s right ear and struck them with a hammer, which caused them to explode. C suffered a perforated eardrum, hearing loss and tinnitus.
Chell claimed damages for personal injury from TCL Ltd in the County Court. He argued that it was vicariously liable (responsible for the unlawful actions of a third party) for H’s actions, and directly liable for breaching its own duty of care as an employer and failing to provide a safe working environment.
High Court appeal
After receiving notification of Chell’s personal injury claim, the County Court rejected both liability claims. He subsequently appealed to the High Court, which supported the County Court’s rejection, stating that it had not committed any error of law or misapplication of the authorities. The High Court also noted that the County Court’s approach was endorsed by the Supreme Court’s decision in another similar case, Various Claimants v Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc, which was handed down after the County Court’s decision. Chell then appealed to the Court of Appeal, who also rejected his appeal, supporting both the County and High Court.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the County Court’s findings that there was not a sufficiently close connection between the act which caused the injury (the incident with the pellet targets) and H’s work to warrant imposing vicarious liability upon TCL Ltd.
Employer was not the ‘real’ cause of injury
The cause of Chell’s injuries was the explosive pellet target, which was not TCL Ltd’s equipment and therefore, not part of H’s work.
The Court of Appeal also ruled that there was no abuse of power as H did not supervise Chell’s work, including the task that he was carrying out at the time of the ‘prank’.
The Court stated that, although TCL Ltd’s business provided the background for the incident, it was ruled that it would be unrealistic to say that H was authorised to do what he did by his employer, TCL Ltd.
As for direct liability, the Court of Appeal said that there was no reasonably foreseeable risk of injury to Chell by reason of the actions of H. In other words, H’s actions were outside the scope of any reasonable foreseeability, and, in general, outside the scope of his employment, but were actions of his own decision without any sufficient connection to his employment to make TCL Ltd liable.
It was agreed that, while this prank could provide a mechanism for causing a reasonably foreseeable risk, it was not relevant to this case. The tensions that Chell reported also did not mention or support any suggestion of threats of violence, and there was no indication that H might behave in the way he did.
The Court of Appeal also stated that, even if a foreseeable risk of injury could be established, the only relevant risk was a general risk of injury from horseplay. Common sense dictated that pranks were not appropriate at a working site; the fitters were employed to carry out their work using reasonable skill and care and, by implication, to refrain from playing pranks. The Court held that it would be “unreasonable and unrealistic” to expect an employer to have a system in place that ensured their employees refrained from horseplay.
No duty of care breach
Interestingly, the site’s rules stated ‘no one shall intentionally or recklessly misuse any equipment, which was a warning against exactly what H did to Chell. The Court of Appeal accepted that it would take a very generous interpretation of statutory to argue that work/social relationships include pranks of this type. As there were no express or implied threats of violent conduct, nor complaints made about H or any other individual, there was no duty of care breach by TCL Ltd.
This is a fascinating employment law case. At a glance, one might presume that any injury sustained in a workplace and by a worker could lead to an obvious and successful personal injury claim against an employer. However, this case highlights the complexities involved in proving fault and liability.
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