Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Vicarious Liability 1: What it is.

People prefer to sue companies over individuals if they can. Companies generally have more money – Tesco has more cash kicking around than its staff on the shop floor. Sometimes, Mr Droog can sue Fyodor Plc because Fyodor Plc did something wrong in its corporate capacity. It has breached some obligation that it had.

An alternative route that might be available is opened up by the concept of ‘vicarious liability’. This is where an employee[1] (Alex)  does something that causes loss to Mr Droog. If Alex is an employee of Fyodor, and does the act that causes loss in the scope of his employment, then Fyodor is ‘vicariously’ liable. Mr Droog can sue Fyodor, even though Fyodor has itself done nothing wrong. This is no-fault, ‘strict’ liability.

The above paragraph raises a lot of questions.Who counts as an employee for the purposes of vicarious liability? What if someone is an employee of more than one employer? What on earth is the ‘scope of employment’[2]? What link between the work and the act is required? Lawyers would reckon that a London law firm wouldn’t be liable for one of its trainees negligently damaging a fence in Banff on a stag do, but a dry-cleaners will be liable for one of its staff nicking a mink stole at work[3].

Critically, I wonder about the justification of vicarious liability at all. Generally, it is seen as a way of putting economic risk on those who can afford (through insurance) to bear it; and allow tort victims a claim against a defendant who can pay out[4].

However, that rationale is far from satisfactory. Tort comes from the Latin 'tortum' meaning wrong. It is about the claims of a wronged party against a wrongdoer. In vicarious liability, we have claims between the wronged and an innocent party who can afford to pay. But only sometimes. Vicarious liability transforms tort into a most imperfect system of insurance.

This legal imperfection leads to real life moral issues. Currently, vicarious liability is being considered by the Supreme Court in a case relating to child abuse by a Catholic organisation[5]. There have been quite a few such cases in recent years. These cases lead to discussions of whether priests are employees and whether child abuse can be in the course of being a priest. Which is all horrible in itself.

Recent decisions seem to favour Diocesan liability. That may be welcomed – we might think that someone should pay. But what of cases where Mr Droog was molested by his uncle in his own home, not a priest in a church (or, a house master in a boarding school)? In the former case, Mr Droog has no claim against any rich organisation. He will unlikely recover any damages. In the latter cases, he will (remember, the church or the school has done nothing wrong).

Which makes it appear that it is better to be molested by a priest than your uncle. Our law should not let me type that.

[1] I use this term loosely here –  it is not synonymous with employee in an employment law sense.
[2] Another time, I’ll look at these two (linked) issues of employee and scope of employment.
[3] Morris v C W Martin & Sons Ltd [1966] 1 QB 716
[4] Another time, I’ll run through the different grounds considered as justifications.
[5] The Institute of Christian Brothers case. 

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