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Practical Jokes at Work Gone Wrong

The High Court recently determined in the case of Chell v Tarmac Cement and Lime Ltd [2020] that an employer was not liable for a contractor’s personal injury suffered in its workplace because of an employee's practical joke.

In this case, a contractor worked alongside staff directly employed by the employer. The contractor had previously made his supervisor aware that tensions were building between employees and contractors on site. The contractor alleged that he had asked to be taken off site (although his evidence in this regard was not accepted by the Judge) and in any event he continued to work on the site. A few weeks later, as a practical joke, an employee brought some pellet targets, which exploded when struck, onto the site. The employee placed the pellet targets on a bench near the employee’s right ear and hit the pellets with a hammer causing a loud explosion. This explosion caused the employee to suffer a perforated eardrum, hearing loss and tinnitus.

The employee claimed that the employer was vicariously liable for the employee’s actions, as well as being directly responsible for his injuries by breaching its duty of care and failing to provide a safe working environment.

The High Court found that although the employer was aware of some tension between its employees and the contractors this tension was not serious enough to suggest there was a risk of physical confrontation or violent acts.

The Judge held that there was not a sufficiently close connection between the risk posed by the tension and the employee’s wrongful act such that the employer should be held vicariously liable. The Judge also found that the employer had sufficient health and safety measures in place and was not directly liable, as it could not reasonably have foreseen the risk of injury to the contractor from a deliberate practical joke, ill-discipline or malice on the part of any employee.

What can we learn from this?

This case is an example where an employer was not found to be liable and illustrated that for a finding of vicarious liability there must be a sufficiently strong connection between the employer, the employee and the act which has caused harm. Following this case, it is difficult to envisage a situation whereby a practical joke has as sufficiently strong connection such that the employer should be held vicariously liable.

It is worth noting that in this case, the court held that it was expecting too much of an employer to devise and implement a health and safety policy, or other policy or site rules, which descend to the level of horseplay or the playing of practical jokes, despite being the employer being aware of tensions between workers.

This bulletin is for general guidance only and should not be used for any other purpose. It does not constitute, and should not be relied upon as, legal advice.

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