Employer not liable for workplace consequences of employee's practical joke


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The High Court has held in Chell v Tarmac Cement and Lime Ltd that an employer was not negligent or vicariously liable for a contractor's personal injury suffered in its workplace because of an employee's practical joke.

The court held that it was expecting too much of an employer to devise and implement a health and safety policy, or other rules, which cover horseplay or the playing of practical jokes.  Although it accepted that the contractor had previously made his supervisor aware that there were rising tensions between employees and contractors on-site, there was no foreseeable risk of injury.  Tensions were not so serious as to suggest the threat of violence or confrontation and so increased supervision was not a reasonable step to expect the employer to have identified and taken.

Although the incident had happened in the workplace, the employer was not vicariously liable for the employee's actions.  The employee's actions were unconnected with any instruction given to the employee in connection with his work and did not in any way advance the purpose of his employer.

Take note:  The decision in Chell will be good news for employers who will not be keen to see the expansion of potential vicarious liability into the area of unanticipated practical jokes.  It was clear here that there was no serious tension between the employee and the contractor, and that the employee's joke was unconnected with any instructions given to him by the employer.

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