Saturday, 15 June 2013

Parent Company Liability (nothing to do with vicarious liability)

Dear old Mr. Droog works for Fyodor Ltd in the 1960s. Fyodor Ltd was a bit bad, and exposed Mr. Droog to batemanium, a chemical that caused Mr. Droog to go blind in his later life. By the time Mr. Droog suffers his loss, realises the cause, and wants to sue, Fyodor Ltd is history. It was wound up. Can Mr. Droog sue the extant parent company, Dostoevsky Plc?

By Chandler v Cape [2012] EWCA Civ 525, he can. The Court of Appeal agreed with the judge at first instance, and upheld the imposition of parent company liability. This was because the parent had assumed responsibility for the safety of its subsidiary’s employees.

What I find interesting about this case is the fact that it has no relation whatsoever with vicarious liability. Arden LJ made passing reference to the fact that the first instance judge had not found liability on “any form of vicarious liability”. That’s the only mention it gets, and no vicarious liability cases were cited in argument. Google “chandler cape vicarious”, and you get the square root of hee-haw.

Given that it was accepted by the parent in Chandler v Cape that the subsidiary would have been liable, it seems surprising that there was no argument at all regarding whether the parent ought to be liable vicariously. If vicarious liability were to apply to parents and subsidiaries, the parental liability would be a slam-dunk success.  Instead, counsel for the claimant argued for the direct liability of the parent. It is worth noting that counsel’s approach was breaking new legal ground, in that the idea of ‘parent company liability’ is new. Although the approach taken is a far less iconoclastic approach than arguing for vicarious liability. All the court had to do was accept that the normal rules of assumption of responsibility in the tort of negligence could apply to the parent company, and did indeed apply on the facts of the case.

I think the reason why vicarious liability was left to one side can be explained in this quote:

“69  I would emphatically reject any suggestion that this court is in any way concerned with what is usually referred to as piercing the corporate veil. A subsidiary and its company are separate entities. There is no imposition or assumption of responsibility [read, liability] by reason only that a company is the parent company of another company.”

This concern is fair enough. If we are to have “limited liability” companies, and the bundles of legal risk are supposed to be capable of being parcelled up and apportioned amongst a corporate group, vicarious liability might be the wrong approach.

But let's apply this logic to natural beings. Why should it be that we (as individuals or companies) be liable on one set of terms for the acts of natural persons we employ (vicarious liability is expressly fault free) but a different set for the actions of legal persons we own (where normal tort rules apply)?   Is the commercial uncertainty caused by a raggedy corporate veil a better reason to keep liability separate than the moral oddness of being responsible for the vulgar, deliberate and secret acts of your employees?

Put another way, if the correct way to decide if a parent is liable to its subsidiaries employees, or Borstal guards are liable to terrorised residents[1] is through the application of a general tortious test that incorporates an element of fairness, why is that different for companies and employees? Given that vicarious liability is dogged by uncertain theoretical foundations, ought it ignore the more stable reasoning afforded by the general law of negligence? Abandoning vicarious liability in favour of the general test would replace strict liability with fault based liability, and import a measure of fairness. Vicarious liability cases could be re-theorised to fit that model. The role of control would be more central. And in those cases where the employer is truly blame free, they would not be saddled with a tort liability they could have done nothing to avoid. 

[1] I’m referring to the Dorset Yacht Co Ltd v Home Office [1970] AC 1004 

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