For those in peril on the sea

Photo by Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

The avoidable death of Annang Neurtey

As someone who works more in the civil rather than the criminal legal tradition, I tend to focus more on the outcome of obtaining damages or compensation for the victim of an industrial or work-place accident.

It’s simply a matter of horses for courses i.e. you stick to what you know or what you’re trained to do. Admittedly, most of the victims of industrial accidents that I have represented are perhaps more focused on obtaining compensation for their injuries – especially if these are life changing. Any criminal liability that the employer may have is purely incidental i.e. something of a side issue. Then again, I suppose you could say that about most civil actions where the criminality of the pursuer remains firmly in the background (think dangerous and careless driving incidents).

The victim of a work-place delict (or tort) may get some satisfaction from their employer or its officers and managers appearing in the dock at a subsequent criminal trial, but this is unlikely to be satisfying in the long term. It will not allow them to get their lives back on track or to move on; payment of compensation is perhaps a more satisfactory conclusion to things. I make that last statement fully in the knowledge that no amount of money can truly give victims back what they have lost.

Yet, every so often, I come across a story or an incident which underlines the importance of criminal law regarding industrial or work-place accidents.

In 2015, one such incident occurred onboard Aquarius, a fishing trawler which operated out of the North East Scottish fishing port of Banff. Serious failings in the operation of the vessel led to the death of a crewman. The victim, 47 year old, Annang Neurtey from Ghana, was swept overboard: his body has never been recovered – adding immensely to the grief of his family.

Anyone who has read Sebastian Junger’s 1997 novel, The Perfect Storm (or viewed the film adaptation of 2000) will be readily familiar with the dangers that fishing folk face at sea. That said, the tragedy which befell Annang Neurtey was entirely avoidable. If the skipper of the Aquarius had properly supervised the crew and followed basic safety procedures, the accident would not have occurred.

Following Mr Neurtey’s death, MB Aquarius Ltd of Buckie, the company which owned and operated the vessel, was investigated by Police Scotland and the Marine and Coastguard Agency. The conclusions reached by investigators were that basic risk assessments had not been properly carried out and that the employer had failed to put a safe system of working in place.

At a subsequent criminal prosecution against Mr Neurtey’s employer for health and safety breaches at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, the company pleaded guilty to breaches of marine safety laws, namely, Regulation 5(1) of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 and Sections 85 and 86 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

A fine of £50,000 was imposed on the employer – it would have been £75,000 had an early plea of guilty not been entered by the company.

Mr Neurtey’s family will doubtless be contemplating a civil action for recovery of damages – unless of course his employer does the decent thing and quickly settles such a claim.

A link to the Marine and Coastguard Agency’s Report of its findings concerning Mr Neurtey’s death can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57f3c2d7ed915d06fa000030/MAIBInvReport18_2016.pdf

A link to an article in the The Press & Journal about the trial can be found below:

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/2011786/buckie-based-fishing-company-fined-50000-following-death-of-crew-member/

Those dark satanic mills …

Have concerns about health and safety gone mad? The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron certainly thought so when his Coalition Government (2010-15) introduced the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (in particular, Section 69 of the said legislation) which removed the right to bring a civil claim for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

It does not mean that employees can no longer bring a civil claim if an employer breaches its duty of care, but significantly claimants will no longer benefit from the presumption of strict liability previously imposed on organisations. Since this reform, it will be essential for claimants to prove negligence on the part of their employers for breaches of health and safety.

We would, however, do well to remember our history: concerns about health and safety were often ignored in the not so distant past.

The phrase “dark satanic mills” comes from the poem, And did those feet in ancient time by William Blake. The phrase has been interpreted as a searing indictment of the wickedness and exploitative practices of 19th Century British industrialists who most certainly put profit before people. This is why rare individuals such as the Welsh born industrialist, Robert Owen and his New Lanark Mills we’re regarded as truly radical and progressive employers.

The words of Blake’s poem were later put to music by the composer, Hubert Parry, and is better known as Jerusalem – an alternative English National Anthem for many because of its rallying call for social justice for the poor and the oppressed.

Over time, admittedly, the UK Parliament did intervene by bringing in legislation to curb some of the frankly dangerous and disreputable practices which had been tolerated in British factories, shipyards and mines. With the industrial revolution, Britain did indeed become the ‘workshop of the world’, but this accolade disguised the terrible human cost which could be measured in countless deaths, terrible injuries and overwhelmingly misery.

Some months ago, I saw a photograph by Bill Brandt in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine which documented life in an East Durham mining community. I was pretty shocked by what I saw: the houses of the miners had no windows. Think of it: these workers spent their days down the pit in almost total darkness. More shockingly, Brandt had taken the photograph as recently as 1937.

Photograph by Bill Brandt (1937)

Yet surely, the bad old days are long gone? The British work-place has become a much safer place? Undoubtedly, as we shall see, employers have become much more aware of their responsibilities to their employees and workers in respect of the issue of health and safety.

That said, if you look at the info graphic produced below from the UK Health and Safety Executive, poor conditions and practices in British work-places still result in unacceptably high levels of injuries and illness – in 2019!

Key facts for Great Britain 2019
Source: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/

Recently, Amazon, the global internet retailer, received very unwelcome media attention about the number of industrial injuries which have occurred in its UK premises. It’s probably fair to say that Amazon UK does not enjoy a particularly good reputation amongst trade unions regarding its employment practices and the recent media stories only compound this state of affairs.

Links to stories about Amazon UK on Sky News and Channel 4 News can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/hellish-conditions-at-amazon-warehouses-seriously-hurt-hundreds-11936881

https://youtu.be/gYUJjpIxkCU

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

It is worth noting that the employer’s common law duties which aim to protect the health and safety of employees establishes a regime of civil liability. In other words, should the employer breach these duties, he will most likely face a civil action by the injured employee who will be attempting to recover compensation.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, on the other hand, makes an employers criminally liable if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. An employer will, therefore, face penalties in a criminal court for breaches of the Act.

The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008

The provisions of this Act came into force on 16 January 2009 and apply to offences committed after this date by employers. Scottish criminal courts will now have the power to impose maximum fines of £20,000 on employers who breach health and safety rules. In the most serious cases where health and safety rules have been breached or ignored, the courts may also have the right to imprison those responsible.

The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010

Sections 65-68 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 should make it easier for organisations to face prosecution in Scotland in relation to allegations of criminal wrongdoing. According to Section 65, the term “organisation” applies to any of the following bodies:

  • a body corporate;
  • an unincorporated association;
  • a partnership;
  • a body of trustees;
  • a government department;
  • a part of the Scottish Administration;
  • any other entity which is not an individual

Such proceedings against organisations may be on indictment (Section 66) or on complaint (Section 67).

For a long time, it has been argued that an organisational culture which promotes lax practices or downright dangerous behaviour can lead to the commission of criminal offences. This an attempt to make organisations more accountable under the criminal law for conduct which causes harm to members of the public.

Overall, this means that an employer could face both a criminal action and a civil action for damages where he has neglected to obey the criminal law and the common law in respect of the employee’s health and safety.

Conclusion

If only we need reminding that health and safety remains a major issue in the work-place, we need only look to a story from Scotland which appeared in national media outlets just this week.

Workers at the Mossmorran and Ineos chemical plants took unauthorised industrial action (wildcat strikes) which was motivated by serious concerns about the lack of health and safety in the work-place. Happily, the employers seem to be listening to the concerns and the employees are now back at work.

Failure by employers to take health and safety issues seriously can leave themselves open to both civil and criminal liability. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution (from the 18th to the early 20th Centuries), it’s true to say that there was no such thing as a culture of health and safety in the work-place. Industrialists like Robert Owen were remarkable because they broke with the paradigm of British industrial practice i.e. workers were resources to be used up and tossed aside when no longer needed.

The growth of the trade union movement and the emergence of the British Labour Party (itself a creation of the union movement) led to pressure for change and tangible improvements were made to working practices. Despite these advances, cases such as the death of Annang Neurtey and the figures from the Health and Safety Executive surely caution us against complacency.

Links to reports on the BBC Scotland website about the industrial action can be found below:

Union GMB said the workers had “continuously raised their concerns about conditions and safety on-site”.

Mossmorran: Walkout at chemical plant over working conditions

Union officials said that concerns over health and safety and pay had been resolved following talks.

Mossmorran: Workers to return after wildcat strike in Fife

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/23/a-hard-days-night/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/19/dont-stop-the-music/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/22/stress-kills/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 February 2020

You’ve got (e)mail! … or will I ever get out of this place?!!!

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Email can be a wonderful form of communication. It can also be, quite frankly, something of a curse for many employees and workers. Essentially, you’re never too far away from the work-place and bosses/clients/service users expect to receive an instant reply.

The expectation by bosses and managers that employees and workers should be monitoring their emails (constantly) does tend to be a contributory factor in the rising number of cases of work-related stress. Employers: please note that you have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment and part of this obligation includes monitoring unacceptably high levels of stress in the work-place.

There is a perception (rightly or wrongly) that UK employees suffer from some of the longest working hours in Europe. In 2019, data from the EU’s Eurostat Agency seemed to support this contention but, interestingly, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) took a more sceptical approach by questioning the method of data collection (the old adage about lies, damned lies and statistics springs to mind here).

Links to a BBC article about this issue and the Eurostat figures (and OECD response) can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-49795179

https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/tps00071/default/table?lang=en

https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/international-productivity-gaps_5b43c728-en;jsessionid=c_2XYmRNoOJLRgHdT0TJPQqs.ip-10-240-5-115

UK employees are, of course, entitled to receive a written statement of the main terms and particulars of their employment as per Section 1 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This statement must contain a provision which addresses the employee’s normal weekly working hours.

Despite Brexit (which did occur on 31 January 2020 – in case you missed it), the UK is still following EU rules until the end of this year … One EU Law with particular relevance to this debate is the Working Time Directive ((2003/88/EC) which was transposed into UK employment law by way of the Working Time Regulations 1998.

In theory, the Directive and the Regulations cap the number of hours that employees (and workers) can work at 48 hours per week (technical point: this figure can be averaged out over a reference period – 17 weeks normally). Crucially, however, UK employees and workers can opt out of the 48 hour maximum by signing a declaration (opt-out) that they wish to do so. If they change their minds, they are entitled to do so by giving the employer a minimum seven days’ notice (or in certain cases – 3 months) of this intention.

The legal rules on working hours are all very well in theory, but what about the culture of organisations which may (at an informal level) promote the idea that long hours spent at work (or just working) are a sure fire way to get ahead in your career?

This is where the influence of email (and other instant messaging services) can be quite insidious (pernicious even?). Employees feel under pressure to deal with this work load at weekends, during holidays and evenings. Parents of young children and carers of elderly relatives, who may have negotiated flexible working arrangements, may be under acute pressure to deal with emails etc when they are outside the work-place. In this way, the work-place becomes like the Eagles’ song, Hotel California (‘You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!‘).

Interestingly, in some of our ex-EU partner countries, there have been initiatives at both the organisational and legal level to curb the smothering influence of email outside the work-place.

There is a real danger here for employers that, by encouraging employee use of email outside working hours, it may constitute a policy, criterion or practice (PCP) – no matter how informal – which could open themselves up to accusations of indirect discrimination on grounds of sex (women are still the primary carers for children and elderly dependents) and disability (by reason of a person’s association with a disabled person) in terms of Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010.

Furthermore, employees might feel that they are under constant surveillance by the employer because it becomes easier to keep tabs on individuals when they are logging in and out of the company’s IT network. For employers, this could lead to legal challenges from employees who are concerned that the right to privacy and family life as enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights has been violated.

Is there a better way of doing things? Yes, is the short answer.

In 2011, the German multinational car manufacturer, Volkswagen (VW) introduced major changes to its working practices by curbing the use of emails when employees were off duty. This agreement was negotiated by the company and trade union/labour organisations.

In France, in August 2016, they went further and passed the El Khomri Law (named after the French Government Minister for Labour who introduced the proposal). This law gave employees a right to disconnect from email. In one particular case which involved the French arm of the British company, Rentokil, an employee was awarded €60,000 because his right to disconnect from email had been breached.

Links to stories about the changes to VW’s working practices and the French El Khomri Law can be found below:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/01/british-firm-ordered-pay-60000-french-court-breaching-employees/

The debate about the right of employees to disconnect from email – whether this is negotiated via some sort of collective agreement or underpinned by law – now seems to have penetrated the British consciousness. Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, one of the leading contenders for leadership of the British Labour Party has thrown her hat into the ring by backing a trade union campaign to introduce a legal right to disconnect in the UK.

One small problem: the Labour Party lost the last British General Election on 12 December 2019 to the Conservatives and is, therefore, in no position to deliver. Over to you Prime Minister Johnson? (a man fond of the populist gesture).

A link to an article in The Independent about Rebecca Long Bailey’s support for the trade union campaign to introduce a law guaranteeing the right to disconnect can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.110220/data/9327866/index.html

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/23/a-hard-days-night/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/25/the-work-life-balance-or-utopia-reimagined/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/22/stress-kills/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/11/employment-contracts-read-them-or-weep/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 11 February 2020

Joint and several liability?

Photo by James Day on Unsplash

This week, purely by chance, I seem to be on a bit of a theme: discussing the legal implications of the Glasgow Bin Lorry Accident which occurred on 22 December 2019.

You can read about the events of that unfortunate incident by accessing the link below to my previous Blog:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/10/post-traumatic-stress-or-psychiatric-injuries/

The previous Blog discussed claims for psychiatric injuries in relation to the tragedy in Glasgow, but another legal action at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, stemming from these events, has just been determined this very week.

The case in question is Glasgow City Council v First Glasgow (No 1) Ltd [2019] CSOH 101.

It will be recalled that it was Harry Clarke, the driver of the bin lorry or refuse collection truck, who had suffered a blackout while driving due to an undisclosed medical condition. He had lost control of the vehicle and this had caused the accident which resulted in the deaths of 6 people and injuries to 15 more in Glasgow City Centre.

Glasgow City Council, Clarke’s employer, was vicariously liable for his negligence. This is now a question of fact. What was in dispute, however, was whether Clarke’s former employer (First Glasgow), a bus company where he was employed as a driver, should also bear liability for his role in the tragedy?

Why – you may well ask?

As Lord Ericht, the trial judge, noted the argument advanced by Glasgow City Council amounted to the following:

The sole ground on which this case is pled is a narrow one. The case is pled solely on the basis of section 3 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1940.’

Section 3 of the above Act addresses a situation where two defenders or more could be held jointly and severally liable for wrongful or negligent acts or omissions.

Glasgow City Council had already paid out substantial damages to the families of the deceased and to those who suffered injury on 22 December 2014 (£860,000 together with expenses of £43,714.40). The Council was now seeking to recover these sums in ‘their entirety’ from Clarke’s former employer.

There two issues in the case were as follows:

1. Whether it is necessary for a claim under the 1940 Act that both the pursuers and defenders be under a duty of care to the injured person; and

2. If the answer to the first issue is yes, did the defenders in this case have a duty of care to the injured person?

Essentially, the Council’s argument rested on First Glasgow’s knowledge of Clarke’s medical condition and the potential dangers that this represented if he continued to drive for a living.

Reference was made by the Council to a previous incident that occurred in April 2010:

On 7 April 2010, Clarke lost consciousness whilst driving a bus when engaged in the course of his employment with the defenders [First Glasgow]. The type of episode from which he suffered was similar to that which was ultimately suffered by him during the events [of 22 December 2014]. The incident was investigated by the defenders and it was known by them that he could present a risk to passengers and others should there be a repetition of the event. In the course of the investigation by the defenders, Clarke changed his story about where and how he had suffered the fainting episode. Any reasonable investigation would have revealed that he was being dishonest to those trying to assess his ability to drive.

In fact, the Council had sought a reference about Clarke from First Glasgow as to his suitability for employment. It was claimed by the Council that the reference request would almost certainly have asked for information about Clarke’s general health and any issues in this regard which would have impaired his ability to carry out driving duties. Unfortunately, the reference was not produced by the Council on the grounds that it had either been lost or misplaced.

The Council pointed out in its submissions to the Court of Session that First Bus should have informed it (as Clarke’s new employer) about the danger he represented if he was given a driving job. Had the full extent of Clarke’s health problems been notified to the Council, he would not have been allowed to continue in his employment as a driver. The Council would have then (possibly) sought to redeploy him in a non-driving role.

In this sense, the Council was attempting to rely upon the principle of foreseeability alone as creating the basis for a duty care owed to it by First Glasgow. Lord Ericht expressly rejected this reasoning by focusing on the tripartite test laid down by Lord Bridge in Caparo Industries PLC v Dickman [1990] UKHL 2 (a judgement of the House of Lords) which emphasised the following factors which need to be present in order to establish a duty of care:

  • foreseeability;
  • proximity; and
  • fairness, justice and reasonableness.

Significantly, Lord Ericht highlighted the fact that First Glasgow had issued the reference about Clarke to Glasgow City Council. It was, therefore, issued for the new employer’s benefit alone. It was not meant to benefit members of the public (a very broad class of people) and, critically, the public was completely unaware of the existence of said reference and could not in any way be said to have relied upon it.

In arriving at his decision, Lord Ericht made the following statement:

In order to succeed in its claim under section 3, the pursuers will have to establish that the defenders were directly liable to the injured party in negligence in respect of a reference given by the defenders to the pursuers. The issue which came before me for debate was whether as a matter of law, in the circumstances of this case, a previous employer who gives a reference to a new employer can be liable in negligence to a third party who is injured by the employee during the course of his new employment.”

His Lordship went on to say:

In my opinion for the 1940 Act to apply both parties must be liable to the injured person. Section 3(2) operates in situations where both A and B are liable to C. It does not operate where only A is liable to C, but B is liable to A.

Reference was also made by Lord Ericht to the decision of the House of Lords in Spring v Guardian Royal Assurance PLC [1994] UKHL 7 where the claimant, an ex-employee of Guardian Royal Assurance, was prevented from gaining new employment in the insurance industry because Guardian Royal provided a prospective employer of the claimant with a negligent employment reference. The reference claimed that the claimant had committed fraud while he had been working for Guardian Royal. This was not true, the claimant had merely been incompetent in carrying out his duties for Guardian Royal.

Held: by the House of Lords that Guardian Royal owed the claimant a duty of care and it was foreseeable that he would suffer harm as a result of the negligent reference. Clearly, the claimant and Guardian Royal had a special relationship – that of employer and employee.

To the disappointment of Glasgow City Council, Lord Ericht chose to distinguish Spring from the present case before him:

The case of Spring v Guardian Assurance established that an employer giving an employment reference owes to the employee who is the subject of the reference a duty of care and would be liable to the employee in negligence if he failed to do so and the employee suffered economic damage. In the present case, the court is being asked to go further and find that there is a duty of care to a third party who is neither the employee nor the recipient of the reference. This is an exercise which must be approached with great care.”

Interestingly, one of the issues raised by Counsel for First Glasgow was that it was under no duty to disclose the incident of 7 April 2010 to the Council (when Clarke fainted while driving) because doctors who had examined him stated that it was extremely unlikely to happen again.

In this respect, First Glasgow did not owe a duty of care to Clarke’s victims. Therefore, the provisions of Section 3 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1940 did not apply to this situation and the Council’s claim for damages from First Glasgow was dismissed.

A link to Lord Ericht’s Opinion in the Outer House of the Court of Session can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2019csoh101.pdf?sfvrsn=0

A link to an article in The Scotsman About the case can be found below:

https://www.scotsman.com/news/glasgow-council-lose-legal-bid-to-avoid-paying-1m-compensation-to-bin-lorry-crash-victims-1-5060212

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 13 December 2019

Don’t stop the music?

Photo by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash

The English Court of Appeal has just ruled that an employer was liable for the hearing loss of one of its employees. Nothing unusual about that you might say. The case law dealing with an employer’s duty of care to safeguard the health and well being of employees is full of such examples of life changing injuries.

The relevant case, however, wasn’t about excessive levels of noise in factories or other industrial environments. The case involved a viola player (Christopher Goldscheider) who was employed by the Royal Opera House in London.

Mr Goldscheider alleged that his employer had failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent him from suffering hearing damage during a particularly noisy rehearsal of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. The Valkyrie overture can be a particular favourite of audiences, but it is very noisy. The American Director, Francis Ford Coppola made full use of its dramatic effect in his Vietnam war movie, Apocalypse Now.

At the time of the rehearsal of Die Walküre, the sound levels of the music reached a massive 132 decibels. Mr Goldscheider was sitting directly in front of the brass section of the orchestra and took the full force of the music. He later claimed that he had developed acoustic shock and had symptoms of tinnitus, hyperacusis and dizziness.

In its defence, the Royal Opera House claimed that Wagner’s music had artistic merit and that some musicians might foreseeably suffer hearing damage.

This argument was first rejected by the English High Court. The English Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the High Court: the Royal Opera House had failed in its duty of care to Mr Goldscheider by not taking reasonable precautions to safeguard his hearing.

Don’t stop the music? Well, not exactly, but perhaps turn it down to safer levels might be the lesson to be learned here. Concert halls and opera houses (as well as other noisy entertainment venues) please take note.

Links to the judgements of the High Court and the English Court of Appeal respectively can be found below:

Goldscheider v The Royal Opera House Convent Garden Foundation & Ors [2018] EWHC 687 (QB)

https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/goldscheider-v-roh-judgmentL.pdf

Goldscheider v The Royal Opera House Convent Garden Foundation & Ors [2019] EWCA Civ 711

https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/goldscheider-v-roh-judgment.pdf

A link to how the case was reported on the BBC News App can be found below:

Royal Opera House loses appeal over viola player’s hearing

The Royal Opera House failed to protect a musician’s hearing during rehearsal, the Court of Appeal rules.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 19 April 2019

Stress kills


Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash

An employer’s liability for psychiatric injuries

In Chapters 3 and 6 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss the issue of work-related stress.

An employer owes a duty to his employees not only to take reasonable care for their physical, but also their mental well-being. In modern times, more stressful working environments and practices have led to a dramatic increase in the number of employees suffering from psychiatric injuries.

It was, therefore, with a mixture of professional interest and genuine sorrow that I read about a tragic case of work related stress where a 48 year old university lecturer took his life because of the pressures that he was labouring under. The BBC reported the story and a link can be found below:

Lecturer’s widow hits out at Cardiff University workload

Dr Malcolm Anderson killed himself after complaining about mounting pressure at work.

The cost of stress

Mind, the mental health charity has stated that “Our research confirms that a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers:

  • More than one in five (21 per cent) agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 14 per cent agreed that they had resigned and 42 per cent had considered resigning when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 30 per cent of staff disagreed with the statement ‘I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed’
  • 56 per cent of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance”

“Taking care of your staff” – Mind. Available at:

https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-your-staff/

Awareness of work related stress

An employer will usually start off from the understanding that the employee should be able to handle the normal pressures of the job unless he has knowledge that the employee has a particular problem or weakness that makes it much more likely that this person is more susceptible to the risk of developing psychiatric injuries as a result of a stressful working environment. Clearly, it is easier for an employee to put into place safety measures in the workplace that protect an employee’s physical well-being. Reducing the risk of psychiatric injuries to employees caused by work-related stress is much more of a challenge for employers. Very often, employers can only take what an employee tells them about their emotional and mental health at face value. To go further, would be perhaps a breach of the employee’s right to privacy.

The legal consequences of work related stress

The first really ground-breaking case was Walker v Northumberland County Council [1995] 1 ALL ER 737.

Walker worked in a particularly stressful social work post for the Council. He had already suffered a breakdown due to overwork and a lack of support from his employers. His employer gave assurances that safeguards would be put in place upon his return from sick leave in order to reduce the risks of stress. The pursuer returned to work, but suffered a second breakdown because the Council had failed to take reasonable care to prevent him suffering from psychiatric injuries. The pursuer brought a claim for damages against the Council.

Held: by the House of Lords that the pursuer should be treated as a primary victim who was entitled to claim damages as a result of the Council’s negligence. The Council had returned him to his previous (stressful) post and it was, therefore, reasonably foreseeable that if the pursuer was exposed to these stressful conditions it was likely that this would cause him to suffer psychiatric injury. If an employee is regarded as a secondary victim, he must satisfy the tests laid down in White and Others v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1998] 3 WLR 1509 which is also discussed in Chapter 3. White arose because Police officers who were on duty at the Sheffield Wednesday FC ground on the day of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989 claimed that their employer had caused them to suffer psychiatric injuries as a result of its breach of the duty of care to them. All the officers’ claims failed.

In Hatton v Sutherland [2002] EWCA Civ 76, the English Court of Appeal stressed that the key question to be asked in situations where an employee raised an action for damages for work-related psychiatric injuries was whether the harm suffered by the pursuer was reasonably foreseeable. The pursuer had to prove that he had suffered an injury to his health which is quite different from occupational stress and this injury had been caused by stress at work and not other factors that could affect the pursuer’s health. Very importantly, the Court of Appeal stated that it was wrong to assume that some jobs are more dangerous than others. All jobs should be judged according to the same test.

Hatton involved four claims in total against different employers: Mrs Hatton and Mr Barber were teachers in public sector secondary schools, Mrs Jones was an administrative assistant at a local authority training centre and Mr Bishop was a raw materials operative in a factory. All four pursuers won their cases in the County Court. The Court of Appeal, however,  dismissed three of the employees’ claims and only narrowly approved the Mrs Jones’ claim.

It will still be very important for employers to show that they take reasonable care to prevent their employees from developing psychiatric injuries, especially if the employer is aware that the employee is particularly vulnerable in this regard. The approach taken by the Court of Appeal in Hatton was affirmed by the House of Lords in Barber v Somerset County Council [2004] UKHL 13.

In Dickens v O2 PLC [2008] EWCA Civ 1144, the English Court of Appeal effectively updated its guidelines in relation to stress related claims in the work place.

In this case, Dickens, a very hard-working and conscientious employee, had explained to her line manager that she “was palpably under extreme stress” and “about to crack up”. This disclosure effectively put the employer on notice about the risks to this employee’s health and it was reasonably foreseeable that she would develop a psychiatric injury. The employer’s response to Dicken’s disclosure about her psychiatric state was totally inappropriate and inadequate. When the disclosure was made, the employer owed a duty of care to Dickens and it had manifestly failed to implement this and was, therefore, liable for the psychiatric injuries caused. It should be appreciated that this decision significantly modifies the test of reasonable foreseeability for work related stress claims which was originally established in Walker v Northumberland County Council [1995]. In Walker, the risk to the employee of psychiatric injury only became reasonably foreseeable after the employee in question had suffered his first breakdown and was subsequently absent from work due to this condition. The decision in Dickens effectively places a greater burden of responsibility on employers for stress related claims in the work place.

Conclusion

Employers should be particularly mindful of stress suffered by employees and they should regularly update their knowledge of the effects of stress in the workplace. One of the ways in which they can monitor work related stress is by carrying out an audit of the workforce several times throughout the year. The data should then be analysed and acted upon to ensure that particularly vulnerable employees are not put at further risk. Such an audit can be relatively easy to carry out as the Health and Safety Executive has produced a Management Standards Risk Evalution Toolkit and questionnaire to help employers deal effectively with work related stress.

Links to the Management Standards Risk Evaluation Toolkit and questionnaire can be found below:

http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/index.htm

https://www.hslsurveydeliverysystem.com/snapwebhost/siam/surveylanding/interviewer.asp

An interesting article on whether an employer can be liable for the suicide of employees can be found below:

https://wilkinssafety.co.uk/2016/10/employers-liable-employee-commits-suicide/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 22 February 2019

The death of the independent contractor defence?

Photo by Martin Brosy on Unsplash

Traditionally, vicarious liability in employment law was primarily an issue for parties who had entered a contract of service. For many years, it was the general legal position that an independent contractor i.e. someone engaged under a contract for services who had committed a wrongful act or omission which harmed a third party was personally liable for the consequences of their behaviour. The person hiring the contractor would normally escape any such liability. Vicarious liability, however, is an area of the law which continues to develop – as we are about to see.

Worryingly, for organisations which use independent contractors (people working under a contract for services), an English Court of Appeal decision may mean that they could be liable for delicts and other wrongful acts/omissions e.g. assaults which were carried out by non-employees.

The English Court of Appeal has clearly come to its decision based on the logic of recent decisions of the UK Supreme Court: namely,
Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets [2016] (which is discussed in Chapter 6 of Introductory Scots Law). It would seem likely, therefore, that the Scottish courts will follow this decision remains to be seen, but it is not a development which organisations are likely to welcome. A summary of the decision can be seen below:

Barclays Bank PLC v Various Claimants [2018] EWCA Civ 1670

Barclays Bank hired a doctor, Gordon Bates, to carry out medical examinations of members of its staff and applicants for employment at the Bank. These examinations were carried out by Bates at his consulting room located at his private address. The doctor was accused of sexually assaulting 126 people during examinations carried out between 1968 and 1984. These incidents did not come to light until much later. By this time, the doctor had died and there was no question of his professional indemnity insurance or his estate paying out compensation to his victims. Barclays Bank stated that the doctor was not an employee – he was an independent medical practitioner paid by the Bank to carry out a service as and when required. Barclays Bank argued that on these grounds they should not be held liable for the doctor’s wrongful actions. In fact, the victims themselves did not claim that Bates was an employee of Barclays, but significantly they did argue that its relationship with the doctor was “akin to employment” and that the delictual act was sufficiently closely connected to the employment or quasi-employment. Bates was under the control of Barclays Bank; by using the services of Bates, the Bank had created the risk of the victims being exposed to his wrongful acts; The medical examinations were carried out on behalf of the Bank; and the Bank had the resources to compensate the victims who now had no practical means of obtaining damages from Bates.

The case was first heard in the English High Court. The High Court decided that Barclays should be held liable for the doctor’s actions. They were benefiting from the service that he was providing and they had the financial resources to compensate the victims (this for organisations using independent contractors will be the really controversial and worrying part of the judgement). 

Barclays appealed to the English Court of Appeal, but the decision of the High Court was upheld. At paragraph 41 of the judgement, Lord Justice Irwin stated:

“The law of vicarious liability has been developed – has been “on the move” – in recent times, most notably in the five critical decisions of: E v English Province of Our Lady of Charity; the Catholic Child Welfare Society; Cox v Ministry of Justice; Mohamud v WM Morrison Supermarkets; and Armes v Nottinghamshire County Council.”

Significantly, Lord Justice Irwin goes on to say (at paragraph 45):

“Moreover, it seems clear to me that, adopting the approach of the Supreme Court, there will indeed be cases of independent contractors where vicarious liability will be established. Changes in the structures of employment, and of contracts for the provisions of services, are widespread. Operations intrinsic to a business enterprise are routinely performed by independent contractors, over long periods, accompanied by precise obligations and high levels of control. Such patterns are evident in widely different fields of enterprise, from construction, to manufacture, to the services sector.”

Conclusion

What are the consequences of the Barclays judgement? The logical conclusion is that any organisation engaging workers or independent contractors under a contract for services will have to be aware of this decision and its implications because it expands the area of vicarious liability considerably. If the English Court of Appeal’s decision is upheld and then followed in Scotland, it will be true to say that vicarious liability is no longer an exclusive feature of the contract of employment (contract of service). Essentially, it will be very difficult for a an organisation to mount a competent defence that it should not incur liability merely because the wrongful act or omission was committed by an independent contractor for services.

A link to the English Court of Appeal’s decision can be found below:

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2018/1670.html

 

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 25 January 2019