Many employers are not aware that they can be held responsible for a range of actions (or omissions) committed by their employees such as assault, theft, sexual assault and discrimination, even if the actions of the employee are outside the scope of the employees authority or directly against the employers wishes.

In the legal world this is called vicarious liability; a principle which imposes strict liability for an employees wrong-doings on an employer and means that an employer must compensate those who suffer a loss as a result of the activities of its employees, for example:

Assault: In the case of Wallbank v Wallbank Fox Designs Ltd [2012] the Court found that the company was liable where a factory worker assaulted his manager in immediate response to a lawful instruction. The Court considered that the violence was closely related to the employment in both time and space.

Theft: In Brink’s Global Services Inc v Igrox Ltd [2011] an employee was instructed to fumigate a container in which silver bars were stored. When in the container the employee stole a silver bar. The Court decided that there was a sufficiently close connection between the theft of the silver and the purpose of the employee’s employment for the employer to be held liable for the theft.

The Courts have extended this principle of vicarious liability even further so that is also covers those who undertake work on behalf of an organisation but who may not necessarily be in their direct employment, for example

Assault: In the 2006 case of Hawley v Luminar Leisure PLC the owner of a nightclub was held to be vicariously liable for a serious head injury inflicted on a customer by a door supervisor, even though the door supervisor was employed by another company which had provided his services to the club. The Court looked at who had “control” of the supervisor at the time and decided that it could deem that the supervisor was in the “temporary employment” of the club.

Sexual Assault: In 2012 the trustees of the Diocese of Portsmouth, on behalf of the Bishop of Portsmouth, were found vicariously liable for an alleged sexual assault by a priest on a resident of a children’s home because, although not an employee, the priest was in a relationship with the diocese which was “akin to employment”.

Discrimination: The Equality Act 2010 assigns liability to an employer for any discriminatory acts carried out by an employee in the course of his or her employment. It does not matter if the act was committed with the employer’s knowledge or approval. It also extends an employer’s liability to the acts of agents as well as employees.

The scope of the Act is very wide and can include actions in or outside the workplace such as those that happen at work related social functions or on business trips abroad. There are numerous examples where the amorous approaches of colleagues, completely unknown to the employer, have been regarded as sexual harassment for which the employer is liable.

The Equality Act – Your defence: The only defence an employer can use is if it can prove that it has taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent the acts complained about. Employers MUST be aware of the risks to which they are exposed arising from the conduct of their employees and mitigate those risks by introducing effective policies and procedures and by providing their staff with adequate training. Employers should also check that they are properly insured.