Employer not liable for practical joke

The opening line of a recent employment case is a useful reminder of the difficulties that can be caused by jokes in the workplace when the judge said:

'The practical joke must be the lowest form of humour. It is seldom funny, it is often a form of bullying and it has the capacity, as in the present case, to go seriously wrong.'

The case involved employees working at a Tarmac site. Tensions rose between three employees on the site which culminated in two employees bringing pellet targets to work and hitting them near the claimant's ear, causing a loud noise. This was supposed to be a practical joke but the claimant suffered a perforated right eardrum, noise induced hearing loss and tinnitus. The claimant brought proceedings against his employer, Tarmac, on the basis that his employer was vicariously liable for the actions of the employee carrying out the practical joke.

Vicarious liability is a serious issue for employers because it means that an employer can be held responsible for the actions of its employees. Anyone bringing such a claim must establish a connection between the contract of employment and the act of wrong doing.

The Court found that the practical joke was not connected to any instruction given to the employee in connection with his work. There was no finding that Tarmac had failed to supervise the employee. There was no vicarious liability and the Court found that sympathy for the claimant alone was not enough to form a sound legal basis for a finding of liability against the employer.

This case is no doubt a common sense conclusion on the facts but it is an important reminder for employers that relations between employees can get out of hand. Employers should keep their health and safety procedures under regular review and ensure that, where relevant, supervision of employees is such that friction between employees cannot escalate.

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